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Wild's mental toughness leads to Game 3 win

by Shawn Roarke

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Wild used their will, more than their skill or their speed or any of the other physical tools at their disposal, to win Game 3 against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild was the mentally superior team Tuesday night and, as a result, found new life in this Western Conference Second Round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. With a 4-0 victory, fashioned on an unexpected third-period offensive outburst, Minnesota has a chance to even this best-of-7 series at two victories apiece when the teams play Game 4 here Friday (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).

"We don't want to be the team that cracks first," said forward Jason Pominville, who assisted on two of the Wild's four third-period goals. "I think we did in Chicago. We gave up a rush chance; they end up capitalizing on it. Tonight was a little bit the opposite. We were able to capitalize on the 3-on-2."

In each of the first two games of this series, the Wild was hanging with the Blackhawks heading into the third period. But they blinked first each time, as Pominville said. A mistake was made and a game that was within striking distance suddenly became a lost cause.

There was no room for blinking on Tuesday night, no room for cracking first.

To do so, the Wild understood, would be to say goodbye to a season none of them wants to see end yet. Sure, they would have talked the good talk after a Game 3 loss, but belief in winning four straight games against the powerful Blackhawks would have been hard to find.

Fortunately for the Wild, they have been down this path before. They dropped the first two games against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round before returning to Xcel for a make-or-break Game 3. That game remained scoreless until Mikael Granlund scored from his belly in OT.

The Wild went on to win Games 4 and 6 here to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in Denver, where they erased four one-goal deficits and advanced, improbably, with an overtime clincher. Not only did that win advance the Wild to the next round, it added another layer to the team's mental toughness.

That experience paid off Tuesday night. Minnesota was frustrated; make no mistake. It had just 10 shots through two periods, and Nino Niederreiter's stuff attempt was one of the only ones that was dangerous. The Wild were ineffective on the power play again, remaining 0-fer the series and 0-fer forever against the Blackhawks in their playoff history. The record crowd of 19.416, expected to be the Wild's not-so-secret weapon, was muted by the display it was seeing.

It was, simply, a recipe for disaster against a team with so many game-breaking options at its disposal.

"We had to stay strong with our game, stay strong with the process," is how the coach, Mike Yeo, put it.

But even blind allegiance to the process built throughout the regular season and the postseason couldn't stop the doubts and frustrations from creeping in. Minnesota was desperate for goals, and they were hard to come by for sure.

"[The game] was definitely frustrating at times, going back again to how it felt there just wasn't being a lot generated," forward Zach Parise said. "It did get frustrating at times, but for us you have to have the type of approach that we needed to win that game.

"We were in the same situation last series, 0-0 and we went into overtime and we were down 2-0 in the series and we needed to win that game too. It was pretty familiar territory for us, but we knew we had to win the game and we did not want to give up anything."

Then the moment of inspiration struck, a tide-turning moment appearing out of a seemingly harmless play.

Pominville used a pass to allow Justin Fontaine to gain the attacking zone, but it appeared Chicago was in good countering position with two defenders back. It was, until Fontaine made a perfect saucer pass and Erik Haula smacked it home on the bounce, beating a sliding Corey Crawford to the far side.

Just like that, it was 1-0. Just like that, the weight of the world was off the shoulders of the Wild. Just like that, the crowd was alive, pulsating with excitement, pushing the Wild further forward. Just like that, Minnesota was alive and in control for the first time in the series.

No longer were the Wild chasing the game. Now it was Chicago on its heels, trying to recover, looking for a pushback that would never come.

"They kept it an even game until late and then got their crowd into it and we just couldn't find a bounce to battle back," said Jonathan Toews, the Chicago captain. "Obviously if they get the lead, they're a smart defensive team, they're going to try to slow it down and make it even tougher on us to create offense."

Now the Wild are alive once more. By not being the first to crack, they saved their season, making Game 4 on Friday an intriguing affair. Win and the pressure surely shifts to the champs. But it is another must-win for the Wild, another night during which they will have to walk a fine line, hoping their mental toughness allows their physical tools to come to the fore.

"We know we've got another really big challenge," Yeo said. "We're not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We know that we're still not leading the series. They are, so our goal is to come back and even it up."

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