ST. PAUL, Minn.—They take the game very seriously up here in what they call "The State of Hockey." On Sunday, they entered a state of euphoria when the Minnesota Wild beat the Blackhawks, 3-2, on Jason Zucker’s goal at 2:15 of overtime.
So, as they say in these parts, “You betcha.” It’s a series now, with the Blackhawks holding a 2-1 advantage in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. You can also betcha bottom dollar that the state of hockey would have been in a state of depression had the visitors taken Duncan Keith’s tying goal at 17:14 of the third period as some sort of cue and conspired to steal this game in broad daylight.
“They deserved to win,” admitted Keith, whose critique was shared throughout a quiet locker room as thousands of fans sang the Wild anthem. Yes, the Wild has an anthem. The Blackhawks have a patent on the Star Spangled Banner production at the United Center, but not even they have their own anthem.
"We were raised/With the stick/And a pair of blades/On the ice we cut our teeth/We took our knocks/In the penalty box/Our mother was the referee."
And so it goes. The Blackhawks could have applied a virtual silencer to this series, but they did not seem up to the task. Were it not for Corey Crawford, the Wild would have prevailed in regulation, with some ease. The Blackhawks started as though they had considered breaking Minnesota’s will, Johnny Oduya tallied from Patrick Kane in the 14th minute, and the depleted Wild could have been deflated.
But despite the holes in their lineup (Dany Heatley, Jason Pominville, Niklas Backstrom), the Wild followed the anthem’s directive to “fight to the end… stand and defend.” The Blackhawks were outhit, 34-13, but more significantly, were outplayed.
“They played like they had to win and we didn’t,” huffed Coach Joel Quenneville. His captain, Jonathan Toews, was no bundle of joy about the effort, either. Chatter abounded about just shooting the puck and daring to craft a greasy goal against Josh Harding, who has logged more time between the pipes in a week than he did in three months. He is becoming quite a story, but the Blackhawks are helping to write it.
Sunday’s game was the biggest happening in this “State of Hockey” since the Fourth of July, when the Wild staged a fireworks display by signing two blue chip free agents. Ryan Suter, a defenseman from the Nashville Predators, joined the Wild for 13 years at $96 million as did Zach Parise from the New Jersey Devils, also at 13 years for $96 million. Reverberations were such that Stan Bowman, the Vice President/General Manager of the Blackhawks, held a conference call that evening. Holiday or no, he was sought after for comment.
Suter played 32-plus minutes Sunday, Parise scored to make it 2-1, and even without mother as a referee, the Wild took it to the Blackhawks. You betcha this series feels different now.