Home-Ice Advantage Undone by Bad Bounce
By John Gilbert
If the Chicago Blackhawks repeat as Stanley Cup champions this spring, they will look back to the second round and realized they had not faced a more difficult challenge than the Minnesota Wild threw at them through six exhausting games.
The Wild outplayed the Blackhawks for great stretches — games even — in their second-round series, and it all came down to the Wild needing to extend their home-ice wizardry in the 2014 playoffs to force a Game 7 back in Chicago. That would duplicate the first round, when the Wild won all three games at Xcel Center against Colorado, and offset losing three games at Denver by winning one critical game — Game 7 — on the road to win the first-round series.
A similar scenario was at hand in the second round, when the Wild lost games 1 and 2 in Chicago, won Games 3 and 4 in Saint Paul’s Xcel Center, then lost Game 5 at Chicago. Back at Xcel Center, the Wild seemed to be headed in the right direction throughout Game 6. They outshot the Blackhawks in all three periods, and gained a 1-1 tie on Erik Haula’s breakaway goal early in the second period.
Through nine and a half minutes of overtime, the Wild had 19,396 fans on the edges of the X’s seats, by maintaining the edge in play. When Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook carried the puck out of his zone and across center ice, he was just making a safe play when he hurled the puck up the right boards, intending for it to ring around behind the Wild net, where it might be recovered by a Chicago forward. It appeared there would be no chance of that, because Justin Fontaine, the former UMD star now a rookie on the Wild forward corps, had come back into his own end.
“I went to the far boards, so that when the puck came around the boards, I could get it and prevent their point man from getting it,” said Fontaine.
From that point on, the entire season will replay itself in a two or three second mental video. As the puck zipped around the base of the boards in the right corner, and Wild players getting in position to gain possession and renew their attack at the other end, the puck suddenly and inexplicable hit a spot where a board-holding strut meets at a seam with the next section. Instead of continuing around the boards, the puck made an abrupt ricochet, straight out from the end boards toward the right faceoff circle.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov spotted it, alertly, but instantly realized it was just far enough from him that he dare not venture out after it. He planted himself as Chicago’s Peter Regin came in hard, first to the free puck. As Bryzgalov braced, defenseman Ryan Suter, thoroughly drained as he must have been, raced back and caught up to Regin, tying him up just enough so that both of them overskated the puck. Unfortunately for the Wild, the next man to the puck was Patrick Kane, Chicago’s elusive game-breaker.
Bryzgalov played it perfectly, bracing again 10 feet out from the net for what was sure to be a one-time blast from 25 feet by Kane. But instead, Kane, at full speed, got the puck on his stick and kept going, darting around and past Bryzgalov on the right, then flicking a backhander almost straight up, just under the crossbar and into the roof of the net. (I never knew it was the roof of the net until former Boston University star Mike Fidler came to play for the North Stars, and in his distinct Boston accent called such a goal “a roofer.”) It’s possible that nobody in the NHL, except Kane and possibly Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, could score that goal, quicker than you can say, “Let’s put a piece of duct-tape over that seam.”
“I saw it bounce out in front,” said Fontaine, from his post on the left boards. “There’s nothing you can do about it in a situation like that. It was a bad bounce. That’s hockey. We were the better team in most of the games, so it’s frustrating to have it end like that. But we grew lots as a team.”
As the picture shows, there was nothing but dejection in the moment after the realization hit. Bryzgalov, on his knees, turned and realized the puck was still resting there, in the goal, and Haula, the former Gopher whose tying goal made him a candidate for heroism, skated around behind the net. “That was a horrible way to end it,” said Haula.
But it was a commendable run by the Wild, one which will bring the team back for training camp all pointed in the same direction. Up.