Wild Appreciably Lengthen Long Winter
By John Gilbert
It’s May, but we’re not ready to declare winter over. Not as long as the Minnesota Wild have even the faintest hope of extending their current second-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks. And after what we’ve witnessed so far, how much more can we expect?
The first-round triumph over Colorado was inspired after two opening losses in Denver, and wound up with victories in Games 6 and 7. Against Chicago, the response from a 2-0 deficit in games was nothing short of thrilling, in a 4-0 victory in Game 3. Well, Game 4 of the series comes next, on Friday May 9, 2014, at Xcel Center in Saint Paul.
The Wild players have been resilient enough to survive the loss of their top three goaltenders, with No. 4, Ilya Bryzgalov, silencing his critics with a huge shutout in the 4-0 Game 3. They also had to survive the skill level of the Colorado Avalanche in the opening round, the salvos from the defending Cup champion Blackhawks in the second round, and the often-absurd statements made by some media cynics in Minneapolis who prefer to watch other sports.
If Wild players were to read and believe some of the stuff written and said in Twin Cities media, they and their faithful fans would concede that: Nobody really cares about the Wild compared to the Twins, the Vikings, the Timberwolves, and even the Lynx; the Wild paid good money to Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu to score goals but they don’t score every night; the Wild simply don’t have enough talent to play with the NHL’s top teams; and they may have come back against the Colorado Rockies, but now they’re facing the Blackhawks, and “the Blackhawks are not the Avalanche.”
Whew! Fortunately, coach Mike Yeo ignores the peripheral stuff and keeps his players similarly focused.
When the Wild won Games 3 and 4 against Colorado, then lost Game 5 at Denver before coming back for a colossal Game 6 victory that squared the series at 3 games each, they then captured Game 7 to record the first and only road victory. Chicago, meantime, had beaten an outstanding St. Louis Blues team more promptly, earning a couple days off to await the Wild, who had to fly directly from Denver to Chicago to start the next round.
The Wild played a terrific first game, dominating much of the action, but after rallying from a 2-0 deficit for a 2-2 tie, they fell victim to the mercurial Patrick Kane, who fooled everyone in the building with a deft fake back-pass, then sped around to the right of the gathering defense and hoisted an amazing shot up into the roof of the net on the short side, as Bryzgalov dropped, anticipating a more normal shot. Kane scored again on a dazzling pass play, and an empty-net goal made the final a deceptive 5-2.
The Blackhawks broke open a 2-1 second game to win 4-1, prompting critics to write that the Blackhawks had breezed to two easy victories over the Wild. That’s also when complaints arose that Parise, Pominville and Koivu weren’t scoring. What baseball writers don’t understand is that in hockey, you don’t get to step into the batter’s box unmolested three or four times a game and get repeated chances to connect; in hockey, you have to fight through guys trying to knock you down, break you up, and prevent you from ever getting a chance, and then you’ve got to beat a standout goaltender.
Besides, the best measure of how good the Wild have become is that the likes of Mikael Granlund, Nico Niederreiter, Erik Haula, and the rejuvenated Dany Heatley could rise up and be the heroes. Good hockey fans don’t care who scores as long as somebody scores to give the team a chance to win. But there is more to the criticism.
First of all, through Game 2 of the Chicago series, Parise was 3-8–11 in nine games, which put him among the playoff scoring leaders, and, last I checked, an assist means somebody on the team scored a goal. Koivu and Pominville were both 1-5–6. Looking over Pittsburgh’s statistics, Sidney Crosby, possible league MVP and certain NHL scoring champion, went through the first nine Penguins playoff games without scoring a goal. He was 0-6–6 and a minus-5, but do we think the media in Pittsburgh was clamoring to bench or demote Crosby? . On Monday night, Crosby got loose to score his first goal on a breakaway in Pittsburgh’s 10th game.
Also, Chicago is an outstanding team, maybe an awesome team, and maybe just as good as the Blackhawks team that eliminated the Wild in five games and won the Stanley Cup last spring. And yes, they are not the Colorado Avalanche. We know they’re not, because the Blackhawks finished third in the NHL’s Central Division, one spot ahead of the Wild, and one spot behind the St. Louis Blues, who were second. The Avalanche? Oh yeah, they won the division. So we know the Blackhawks aren’t the Avalanche, because the Avalanche won the division and Chicago was third.
Coming home trailing the now-healthy Blackhawks two games to none was not a pleasant task, but also not an impossible one. It was a scoreless duel for two periods, both teams straining for a scoring chance, and not unlike two baseball teams engaged in a double-no-hitter for six innings.
Then, once again, Haula and Granlund proved that the Wild scoring depth can sting. Haula, the former University of Minnesota center from Finland, fed Justin Fontaine ahead on the right side, and broke hard toward the net. Former Minnesota-Duluth standout Fontaine sped up the right boards and saw two or three defenders between him and the net, but he also sensed Haula breaking. So he lofted a perfect saucer pass, right-to-left across the slot and through the defenders. The puck landed in perfect position for Haula, who arrived at the right edge to score a one-time deflection goal. Not bad for the checking line: a Bulldog and a Gopher, fierce rivals a couple years ago, collaborating on a goal that electrified the big crowd.
An even more spectacular play, which could have had four assists, followed quickly, winding up with Pominville getting the puck on the right, from Parise, and relaying it across the slot to Granlund, who cut through the vaunted Chicago defense, shifted from forehand to backhand, and ruined Corey Crawford’s night with a backhanded flip into the right edge for a 2-0 lead.
Then it was Parise’s turn, artfully deflecting Suter’s point shot past Crawford, but squarely off the left pipe. Cat-quick, Parise whacked the rebounding puck in for a power-play goal — his fourth of this playoff season but first in the series — and it gave the Wild a 3-0 lead.
With time running thin, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville pulled Crawford for an extra skater. This time, Neiderreiter, the pride of Switerland, made another highlight-video rush, end-to-end. He got free along the boards to shoot for the open net himself, but he instead set up Granlund for the empty-net goal and a 4-0 victory. Bryzgalov was superb in goal for the shutout, and a rush of hope engulfed Minnesotans everywhere.
By the way, the oft-repeated slam non-hockey media types throw against hockey, that the Wild can never hope to match the fan support of the Twins, Vikings or Timberwolves, brought the television ratings into focus. Going into this year’s NHL playoffs, Fox Sports North had recorded the Twins pennant-deciding victory over the White Sox in 2010 as its all-time ratings leader, with a 15.3 household rating among Twin Cities market television sets. Each rating point accounts for 17,280 tuned-in households. In this year’s Wild playoff, Game 1 against Colorado had an 8.1 rating, Game 2 a 7.7, Game 3 a 9.6, and Game 4 was a Wild record on Fox at 12.7. Game 5 had an 11.2 household rating, breaking the Wild record just set, and Game 6, at Xcel, had a 13.9 — rebreaking the record for any Wild telecast ever. Game 7, in Denver, set a new standard with a 16.4 household rating, for the highest rating of any event ever broadcast by Fox Sports North. The game also was worth a 32 share, which means 32 percent of all the Twin Cities TV sets that were turned on were tuned in to the Wild game.
Even better, when word spread about Game 7 going into overtime, the statistics jumped to an 18.3 rating and a 49 share, well beyond the all-time record that broadcast was setting. We can only speculate on what the ratings will be like Friday night for Game 4 of the Wild-Blackhawks series. The surprising number of non-hockey fans in the Twin Cities media will remain unconvinced, but the general public in the “State of Hockey” knows better.