For additional insight into the Western Conference Second Round series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Claude Noel to break down the action. Noel will be checking in throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Noel was coach for the Winnipeg Jets from 2011-14 and interim coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009-10. He also coached many years in the minor leagues, including the American Hockey League. In addition, Noel, a former forward, had 138 points in 353 regular-season games in the AHL and played seven games in the NHL with Washington Capitals in 1979-80.
The star players for the Chicago Blackhawks certainly rose to the occasion in the clutch during Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round series against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday at United Center in Chicago.
Patrick Kane scored twice, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp also had goals and goaltender Corey Crawford made 30 saves to give the Blackhawks a 4-1 win and a 2-0 lead in the best-or-7 that now shifts to Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota for Game 3 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Claude Noel feels the Wild need to figure a way to neutralize the big plays from the star players to have a legitimate shot at staging a comeback in the series.
"Chicago's big players were big again," Noel said. "I thought they were very good out of the breakout, through the neutral zone and then making the proper decisions off the rush. A lot of their chances came from off the rush and I thought they were very good getting the puck deep and maintaining a lot of control. They got a lot of good scoring chances as a result."
The Wild lost back-to-back games in regulation for the first time since Jan. 11-13. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk, a key to their turnaround after his acquisition in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes, has allowed seven goals in two games against the Blackhawks.
"I felt Chicago was more dangerous than Minnesota, especially off the rush," Noel said. "Minnesota is usually solid through the neutral zone, but the Blackhawks created those opportunities.
"Chicago is a really dangerous team on the counters; when their defensemen have possession of the puck they're gone, and that's exactly what happened on the Duncan Keith pass to Patrick Kane for Chicago's second goal."
On the Kane goal, Keith took advantage of a loose puck at the Chicago blue line by snapping a long diagonal pass to Kane, who was well behind Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. Kane skated in and snapped a shot past Dubnyk with 19.9 seconds remaining in the second for a 2-0 lead.
"Chicago did well on those breakouts and getting pucks to the other side; the weak side and then stretching plays and taking advantage," Noel said. "They stretched the Minnesota defenders, even on counters, and they maintained control through the neutral zone and that was a key for me."
Another key was the play of Crawford, who looked as comfortable as he has in any of his five games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He made two clutch saves against Wild forward Zach Parise in the second period when his team held a 1-0 lead.
"I thought [Crawford] was really good; to me winning in the playoffs is about that," Noel said. "It's making key saves or getting key goals. Crawford made sure Minnesota couldn't really establish momentum.
"The goal that was scored early in the third [by Minnesota defenseman Matt Dumba] didn't really unnerve him, and that could unnerve anybody because it was kind of a weird shot off a rush on the power play."
The Wild did outshoot the Blackhawks 15-10 in the third period when they turned up the heat attempting to mount a comeback.
"Minnesota took three or four shots from everywhere [after their goal] to kind of see how Crawford would respond but he held his ground and battled through it and was good," Noel said. "It's Crawford's net, in my opinion. If you're going to win the Stanley Cup it's likely going to be with him in net."
While Game 3 isn't an elimination game, it's essentially a must-win for the Wild in front of their home fans.
"They have to win this game … [and] generate some excitement in their building with their fans and generate some confidence in their team that they can beat Chicago," Noel said. "This has to be done in Game 3 because if you don't win that game, you've built nothing, no confidence. Some doubt and negativity might then creep in, and players might ask, 'How can we do this?' The Wild need to put their best foot forward here. You have to have a lot of players going all out in that game, you're going to need a lot of 'A' games."
Noel feels the Wild would certainly benefit from scoring the opening goal of the game, something they haven't done yet in the series.
"They can't allow Chicago's big players to make the big plays early on," Noel said. "Even if they weren't big plays, they were able to score on their chances so you have to take those guys out of the game the best you can. You have to check them, but Chicago has a lot of them. The thing is, though, Minnesota has a fair amount of big players too. They just need to dictate their game from the early going."