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Stoner the bedrock for Wild's physical game

by Mike G. Morreale

CHICAGO -- The Minnesota Wild have won games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by utilizing their size, strength and experience.

It's a formula that enabled them to win their Western Conference First Round series against the Colorado Avalanche in seven games and an approach that must be adhered to in their second-round meeting against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Defenseman Clayton Stoner is more than happy to lead that charge.

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said his team didn't do enough in a 5-2 loss in Game 1 against the Blackhawks on Friday, even though the Wild outshot (32-22) and outhit (37-24) the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Ramsay: Defensemen continue to be key

For additional insight into the Stanley Cup Playoff series between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks, has enlisted the help of former NHL coach Craig Ramsay to break down the action. Ramsay will be checking in throughout the series.

Ramsay played in more than 1,000 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres before going on to coach the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he led the Flyers to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Ramsay was most recently an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.

The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Minnesota Wild 5-2 in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series on Friday. But longtime coach Craig Ramsey told that the score in that game was not indicative of how well the Wild played. In fact, he believes Minnesota gave the Blackhawks all they could handle before Patrick Kane scored two goals to decide the game in the third period.

Minnesota shouldn't make too many adjustments heading into Game 2 on Sunday at United Center (3:00 p.m. ET; NBC, RDS, TSN). As they did in Game 1, the Wild will continue to rely on their defense to supplement their offense. Defenseman Clayton Stoner sparked Minnesota's comeback from a 2-0 deficit with a goal 2:19 into the third and made a real impression on Ramsay.

"He banged everybody. He got a goal but he was very physical all night long. I think he set a nice tone and the rest of the team followed," Ramsay said. "The key now is to have your blue line involved. Who is the leading scorer on the Blackhawks? Right now it's [Brent] Seabrook."

Seabrook's eight points is actually tied with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for the team lead, but the defenseman reached that total in four games. His defensive partner, Duncan Keith, is right behind him with seven points. So Minnesota must find a way to keep Chicago's talented defensemen honest. They've done it so far by adopting a longtime Chicago strategy.

"Both teams use a lot of stretch plays on their breakouts. Chicago has always done that but I thought Minnesota did it a number of times as well; using that stretch guy to back up the Chicago D. It's important because Chicago's defense is such an important part of its offense," Ramsay said. "I really think Minnesota has a chance to win the series. I thought they really played a strong game."

The difference in an otherwise even Game 1 was Kane, who bailed out his team 86 seconds after Kyle Brodziak tied the game in the third. His highlight-reel gamer-winner was another example of how talented the Blackhawks are.

"Chicago has so many weapons, they can really explode on you and create goals in a hurry," Ramsay said. "[Kane] is a pretty dynamic player and that goal he got to get the lead back was pretty special. People try to knock him off the puck but he's just so strong on his feet. His ability to hold on to the puck and make plays and score goals is really impressive."

Minnesota can't match Chicago's talent, so its goaltending must find a way to cancel out the Blackhawks' stars. The Wild played Chicago even in practically ever area, so goaltending, whether it is Ilya Bryzgalov or Darcy Kuemper, will have to be the difference.

"At some point you need the goalie to win you a game or a period when you don't play well," Ramsay said. "[Corey] Crawford has done that for the Hawks and Minnesota is going to have to get that from their goaltender at some point."

-- Tal Pinchevsky

"It's not just effort and trying hard; it's doing things the right way," Yeo said. "There wasn't enough urgency in the details and little things that add up to make a difference this time of year. We slipped a little bit from our last game and didn't play at the same level. So we'll rectify that."

The Wild allowed 24 shots per game and averaged 27.7 hits against the Avalanche on the way to their first playoff series win in 11 years. Is that too much to ask against the Blackhawks in this best-of-7?

"I thought [our physicality] was good in Game 1," Wild forward Zach Parise said. "We're not a team that goes out of its way to hit someone. When the hit is there, we make it, and I think we do a good job in the playoffs. We're not getting so consumed by that or distracted with being physical. We're still playing within ourselves, and, at the same time, when it's there we've done a good job of bumping them."

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said he believes the Wild are a much better team this spring than last, when Chicago eliminated Minnesota in five games in the 2013 Western Conference Quarterfinals.

"I don't think they want to finish with the same results as last year," Toews said. "I think there's that determination. They want to prove that they are the better team, but they are playing better as a team as a whole and they have a lot of skill. They play smart and patient hockey and we have to give them that respect and be much better if we want to beat them."

Game 2 is Sunday at United Center (3 p.m. ET; NBC, RDS, TSN).

Stoner had perhaps his finest playoff performance in the Game 1 loss. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound left-handed shooter scored his first playoff goal and delivered a team-high six hits.

In Game 1 of the first round against the Blackhawks last season, Stoner had an assist but missed the remaining four games with a lower-body injury. He was certainly out to put a hurting on any Chicago player in his cross-hairs Friday, and that's something that needs to continue.

Despite missing 15 games in the regular season with a lower-body ailment, he led the Wild in penalty minutes (84) and was fourth in hits (99).

"I thought he was a difference-maker [in Game 1] but this is the way he's played all playoffs for us," Yeo said. "He recognizes the investment he must make in the series and wants players to know when he's on the ice. He shouldn't be a fun guy to play against. He knows his identity, knows his role."

Stoner knocked Chicago forward Andrew Shaw from the game midway through the first period with a crunching body check along the boards in the offensive zone. The hit could leave the Blackhawks without their feisty third-line forward for a few games. Coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged that Shaw is questionable for Game 2.

Stoner was a bulldozer in every zone and spared no one. He tagged Joakim Nordstrom twice and knocked into Toews. That physicality forced the Blackhawks to be aware of where Stoner was at all times.

"It's something I try to bring throughout the playoffs and the physicality ramps up with everybody," Stoner said. "They're being physical so I'm just trying to do my part. Being physical is something you need to do to slow them down. They're a great rush team, and if you can slow them down in the series, hopefully that can wear guys down."

Stoner cited Minnesota's first-round series against Colorado as an example of the importance of slowing down the opposing rush. Speedy rookie Nathan MacKinnon was lighting up the Wild offensively until they decided enough was enough.

After generating two goals, 10 points and a plus-8 rating in the first five games of the series, MacKinnon was held without a point and a minus-6 rating in Games 6 and 7. It's something Minnesota might look to against Chicago's offensive spark plug, Patrick Kane.

Kane was a one-man wrecking crew in the third period of Game 1, scoring two goals, including the winner at 8:22 off a splendid individual effort. MacKinnon had three assists in a 5-4 victory against the Wild in the first-round series opener.

"I think we were tested in Game 1 against the Avalanche; MacKinnon was fast," Stoner said. "He was pushing the [defense] back and we had to find a way to slow him down. We found a way of getting three coming back and our defense was a little tighter. We had that tight gap throughout ice so there was no space in between for him to make those moves.

"Our defense and whole system learned a lot from that last series."

Yeo was quick to point out that the Blackhawks' high-powered offense doesn't need 30 opportunities to ring up five goals.

"This is a talented team, so we have got to make sure we're doing a good job of limiting their opportunities," Yeo said. "It's pretty tough when you're giving up back-door plays and plays right in front of your net. But we have to clean that up in order to have success."


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