ST. PAUL, Minn. -- For the third year in a row, the Minnesota Wild will spend their summer trying to figure out how they can narrow the gap with the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks completed a four-game sweep of their Western Conference Second Round series Thursday with a 4-3 victory. It's the third consecutive year Chicago has ended Minnesota's season, and the second straight year they've done it at Xcel Energy Center.
It was another year of the Wild watching their best players be overshadowed by the Blackhawks stars. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith combined for eight goals, 11 assists and a plus-18 rating in the series. Minnesota's Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter combined for two goals, seven assists and were minus-20.
Vanek did not score a goal, and Pominville did not until 2:18 remained in the third period Thursday.
Suter said a good share of the blame rests with Minnesota's top players.
"It always does, right?" Suter asked rhetorically. "We have to be better, no question about it."
As good as Chicago's big guns were offensively, Pominville said they also didn't allow Minnesota to get set up in the attacking zone.
"What impressed me the most about the way they played is the way they defended," Pominville said. "They didn't give us much. Their attention to detail was good, they defended hard and made it tough on us. And we had a tough time solving the goaltender for the most part."
Entering the series, the Wild felt, for the first time, that they had an advantage at goaltender.
Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and the key to the Wild's drive to the playoffs after being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in mid-January, stopped the final 66 of 68 shots faced in the Western Conference First Round against the St. Louis Blues. He appeared to be in top form again after allowing six goals on 17 shots in a Game 4 loss.
Chicago's Corey Crawford was pulled in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Nashville Predators and benched after Game 2, only to be reinserted in Game 6, making 13 saves in relief of Scott Darling to help the Blackhawks rally for a 4-3 clinching victory.
But whatever problems Crawford had against Nashville were nowhere to be found against Minnesota. He stymied the Wild at every turn, especially in Game 3, a 1-0 victory that put Minnesota on the brink of elimination.
"We didn't do nearly enough," Parise said.
In six trips to the postseason, it was the second time the Wild were swept in a series and the first time since losing in four to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 2003 Western Conference Final.
Wild coach Mike Yeo called the series a learning experience.
"That's a team, first off, they played great. I'm not surprised they played great," Yeo said. "They've won eight of their last nine playoff series, and the team that beat them took seven games to beat them. So for you to beat them, you've got to be on top of it, and it's going to be hard."
With the NHL realignment that took effect before the 2013-14 season putting the Wild and Blackhawks in the Central Division and Chicago's core players not going anywhere, Minnesota will likely have a chance for a rematch. To win, the Wild will need more from their best players and to find a way to better limit Chicago's stars.
"We have to beat this team," Pominville said. "Every year the last few years we've played them. We have to find a way to get that next level."
Yeo said he feels the Wild are a good team, but he knows that's not enough to beat the Blackhawks.
"They've got guys that are a little bit different from our guys, that's one thing," Yeo said. "We've got guys that do tremendous things for us too. We might not have a guy that's going to get 100 points a year for us right now, but we have guys who are going to contribute offensively; but they play the game a certain way and that allows us to be successful as a team. Right now we're a good team and we have to find a way to be the best team."