Following Wild games, Managing Editor Mike Doyle will give the Five Takeaways that he remembers from the contest. Tonight, he looks back at a 2-1 against the Chicago Blackhawks:
It’s only fitting that the Minnesota Wild punched its Stanley Cup Playoff ticket against a team that has bounced it out of the postseason the past two seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks. With its win in the Windy City, Minnesota clinches a third straight trip to the playoffs. For the first time in franchise history, Minnesota has advanced to the postseason three years in a row.
It hasn’t been easy the past three years, but the Wild gave itself some breathing room this season. Unlike in years past, Minnesota was pretty secure in its positioning down the stretch and held its own destiny in the final week of the season. However, that didn’t make things any less tense. After yesterday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Wild needed a strong effort and played a smart road game. Despite weary legs of a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Minnesota rose to the challenge in the third period for the win — earning it’s 11th straight victory on the road.
Mystery shrouded the club’s lineup before the game, but the Wild welcomed back an important cog, who turned out to be a difference maker in the game…
Before the game, Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was very secretive about the club’s lineup. The big reveal during warmups: Jason Zucker would return to action for the first time since Feb. 9, when he broke his clavicle against the Vancouver Canucks. The 23-year-old underwent surgery and was initially diagnosed with a 12-week recovery period. However, the forward must have Wolverine-like healing powers, because he was back in only eight.
Zucker started the game on the wing with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart. The speedster tested out the injury early on, throwing a check on sturdy Hawks defender Niklas Hjalmarsson. The winger said that he didn’t have a whole lot of contact in practice, so it was probably important for him to test out the injury early in the contest. In the third period, the forward tested out his shot, which is still apparently plenty dangerous. On a 2-on-1, Stewart made a slippery pass onto Zucker’s tape and he buried it past an outstretched Corey Crawford. The former Denver Pioneer was having a career year before sustaining the injury and picked up where he left off in Chicago. The tally was his 20th of the season and stood up as the game winner.
With Zucker’s return, the Wild shifted its lines around. Nino Niederreiter, who left last night’s game early after taking a Matt Dumba shot to the foot, was moved to the wing with Charlie Coyle and Jordan Schroeder. The trio had success a month ago and was reunited against the Hawks. With Coyle moving down a spot, Kyle Brodziak skated between Thomas Vanek and Justin Fontaine.
In hockey, teamwork is key. Tonight, we saw a couple of examples of Wild players working together in very different ways. In the second, the Hawks were threatening to break a scoreless tie, when Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella combined to clear a dangerous puck in the crease. Scandella probably could’ve handled it himself, but Spurgeon gave him a little extra boost just to be sure. In the third, Coyle and Dumba teamed up to welcome Hawks forward Kyle Baun to the NHL. The Wild teammates smushed Baun into boards like the Natural Disasters crushing a smaller opponent into the turnbuckle. Speaking of teamwork, stick tap to social media maven, Katlyn Gambill, for creating those GIFs.
Although the Wild ends its season on a tour against heavy-hitting Central Division foes, the makeup of each matchup is decidedly different. While last night’s game against the Winnipeg Jets was as contentious as the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, tonight’s contest had a completely different feel. The old saying is that rivalries are built in the playoffs, but tonight’s contest looked more like a friendly outing than a bad blood battle between two consecutive postseason combatants.
The intensity level might’ve been turned down to Mumford and Sons (on the scale of Jack Johnson to Pantera) because the Wild was on the second night of a back-to-back and the Hawks have already clinched a postseason berth. However, the two recent playoff series between Wild and Chicago hasn’t seen an I’d-like-to-kill-that-guy moment that escalates the spurn in one fell swoop. In fact, some Chi-Town fans started a “Detroit Sucks!” chant about five minutes into the third period. Though the Wild clinched on the Hawks home ice, Chicago fans probably don’t give the club much respect, which also dulls the intensity on the ice.
The Wild isn’t on a mission from God (well, depending on which zealous fan you ask), but the National Hockey League regular season is quite the odyssey when you think about where we’ve been since in October. Of all the buildings, hotels and destinations, Chicago has to be one of my favorite stops on the tour. Tonight, original Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd was in attendance and took part in the between-period shootout from the red line and nailed his first attempt. You never know which celebrity will be in attendance in the Windy City and Aykroyd has to be my personal favorite of all the famous participants I’ve seen at United Center. Always the entertainer, he wore his patented dark Ray-Ban sunglasses and did a little shimmy shake as he left the ice.
Just like Frank Sinatra sang, Chicago is my kind of town. It might be for selfish reasons, but I’d like to see the Wild back in the Windy City in the postseason for a third straight year. And if I were on the roster, I’d want revenge on the Hawks when it matters most.