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Wild beat Blackhawks in Game 4 to even series

by Shawn Roarke

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Another offensive explosion at Xcel Energy Center has the Minnesota Wild all even in their Western Conference Second Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Wild scored four goals for the second straight game here to earn a 4-2 victory Friday and even the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series 2-2.

Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter scored even-strength goals in the first two periods and Jared Spurgeon added a power-play goal in the third. The goals by Pominville and Niederreiter, which proved to be the game-winner, answered tying goals by the Blackhawks.

"They fed off the crowd, those goals we gave up we lost a lot of energy; 1-1, 2-1, get it right back, 2-2, we're fine and they get it right back," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They play hard in their building and they're good in their building and they check well, so it's tough to get momentum in here. Couple times we had it, we didn't get to stabilize it."

The Blackhawks couldn't stabilize because the Wild kept finding answers to their surges, including the unexpected brilliance of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who found his game after allowing a pair of questionable goals during a span of 7:07 bridging the first and second periods.

With the game at 2-1 in the second period, Bryzgalov stoned Patrick Sharp on a clean breakaway.

"A game-changing save right there," Minnesota forward Zach Parise said of the best of Bryzgalov's 18 stops.

Game 5 is Sunday at United Center (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN, RDS).

After scoring a total of three goals in losing the opening two games at United Center, the Wild erupted for eight goals in the next two games. Chicago is learning the same painful lesson the Colorado Avalanche learned in the previous round: The Wild are very hard to beat at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild are 5-0 in these playoffs in front of their home fans, including a 4-0 win Tuesday that prevented them from falling into a 3-0 series hole. The Wild are 1-5 on the road and have allowed 26 goals.

The back-to-back losses mean Chicago will be forced to endure another visit here for Game 6 on Tuesday. At that point, Chicago will either be a game away from advancing to the Western Conference Final for the second straight year, or be on the brink of extinction.

"We've guaranteed a Game 6 now, another game here," Parise said. "I can only imagine it's going to be even better."

Minnesota assured this series will go at least six games by playing the brand of hockey that defines the Wild when they are playing well.

Chicago managed 20 shots on goal, few of a high-quality nature. The goal by Sharp that tied the game at 1-1 was a partial gift; Bryzgalov allowed a stoppable shot to squeeze through his leg pads. The other goal, by Handzus, was the type of goal Chicago wants in this series, the result of a bit of a cycle that punished the Minnesota defense followed by a forward establishing and maintaining position in the slot for a tip.

But after Handzus' goal, there was very little push from the Blackhawks. They entered the third period needing a goal to get even but managed seven shots in the final 20 minutes.

"I think it's reflecting of our intensity," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "They worked for their chances. They worked for everything they got. We have to do the same. I don't really know how to explain it, we have to be better. It's frustrating to not get a win the last two games on the road.

"[We] could have put ourselves in a great spot had we played the way we need to play to try and get a win these last two games. But we didn't. This series is long from over. That's the good news. We have a chance to redeem ourselves and be better than we have been."

Chicago managed 19 shots Tuesday in a 4-0 loss in Game 3. It managed one more than that Friday. The Blackhawks say neither shot total is enough. The Wild counter that the low totals are a product of their acumen at playing a fundamentally sound defensive game.

"We're always making them come through five guys," Parise said. "That gets frustrating. We're working hard. We're making it tough. We're just playing a good defensive game, and that is, in turn, letting us have the puck more and play more offense."

Unlike Game 3, when Minnesota did not score until the third period, the Wild established themselves in the offensive zone early and often in Game 4. The goals followed in short order.

The first one was set up by forward Matt Cooke, making his first appearance since finishing a seven-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in the first round. Cooke's aggressive forecheck forced Michal Rozsival into a turnover in his own zone; Fontaine picked up the puck and placed a rising wrist shot between the shoulder of goaltender Corey Crawford and the short-side post at 7:24.

It was Fontaine's first goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the first time Minnesota scored in the first period in this series.

Sharp tied the game in the final seconds of the first period, but Crawford allowed Minnesota to take a 2-1 lead 3:51 into the second. This time, he was struggling to find his position in the crease and the puck behind his net when Pominville pinballed his centering attempt off the goalie's skates and into the net.

After blowing its second one-goal lead of the game on the Handzus goal, Minnesota needed all of 44 seconds to go ahead for good. This time, Koivu made a nice outlet pass to Charlie Coyle at the attacking blue line, and Coyle made a beautiful touch pass to Niederreiter steaming down the left side. Niederreiter took the pass in stride, moved in another 10 feet or so and snapped a wrist shot to the far side past Crawford's glove.

It stood up as the game-winner, Niederreiter's second of the postseason.

"It felt great," Niederreiter said. "Obviously, it was a great play by Charlie Coyle to get the puck in the neutral zone and he played it up perfectly to me and I had a chance to get that goal."

Minnesota added a power-play goal in the third period, a beautiful passing play between Koivu and Spurgeon that ended with Spurgeon ladling a shot above the lunging Crawford, who made 27 saves.

"We knew how important this game was for us tonight and I feel we played, from the beginning to the end, a very solid game," Niederreiter said. "We know we can be better in certain areas, but, overall, I think it was a great performance by us."

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