Following Wild games, Managing Editor Mike Doyle will give the Five Takeaways that he'll remember from each contest. Today, he'll look back at a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks:
Prior to the series, not many of the hockey pundits gave the Wild much of a chance against the President Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks, the team with the best regular-season record in the National Hockey League. Well, tonight’s game proves why we play the games and don’t let the ‘elite hockey minds’ just pick a winner to advance.
Non-hockey fans might blow this game off as a low-scoring, defensive boring affair. I guess that’s why they are non-hockey fans. Honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could sit through this contest and not instantly become a fan of the game. This game had everything that makes hockey great: excitement, speed, toughness, guts and more drama than a Shakesperean tragedy. Well, it had everything but a Wild victory. The good news, Game 2 is in Chicago on Friday and we get to do it all over again in just three short days. I can hardly wait.
The big story from tonight has to be Josh Harding. Prior to the game, Niklas Backstrom was set to start in goal. The netminder carried the bulk of the load for the Wild in the regular season and it was expected to remain that way during the playoffs. In warmups Backstrom suffered an injury and was unable to play (after the game Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said Backstrom suffered a lower-body injury and didn’t know how serious the injury is) so Harding got the call. If you didn’t know, Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before the season, and has battled the disease all year. After feeling off in the middle of the season due to new medications related to MS, he went on Injured Reserve for a big chunk of the regular season. Before the returning to the Wild lineup and coming off IR, he went to Houston for a two-game conditioning stint. Upon his return, he only made one appearance, an auspicious start to his comeback, giving up three goals in relief of Backstrom in the club’s second-to-last game.
Tonight would be a different story.
Not having any idea he’d be the starting goaltender in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Harding came into the game with notice and the entire State of Hockey held its collective breath. I have no clue what was going through his head, but after a few long shots, Harding seemed like he was settling in and gaining confidence in the crease. After the Wild grabbed an early lead, the netminder locked in.
We often use words in sports like courageous, gutsy or brave with loose hyperbole. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to use any of those adjectives to describe Harding’s 35-save performance tonight, or his entire season for that matter. Harding and the Wild didn’t deserve to lose tonight’s game, but in sports someone has to. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see Harding’s professionalism, attitude and commitment this season, on and off the ice, knows the goaltender is a winner in the more important game of life.
In front of Harding was a solid effort from Minnesota’s blue line. Ryan Suter set a Wild single-game record for time on ice with 41:08. The ironman should probably invest in a hyperbaric chamber if he hasn’t already.
Jared Spurgeon, who plays like a grizzled vet and looks like a teenager, blocked a team-high seven shots. None were more impressive than his third period rejection of Patrick Sharp. The Hawks wing walked down the slot and Spurgeon contorted like a human pretzel to sacrifice his body to deny the scoring attempt.
After being recalled from the Houston Aeros yesterday, Marco Scandella played big minutes and was given a shutdown role. In the third period, Patrick Kane tried to use his patented spin-o-rama move on Scandella, but the defenseman didn’t bite and kept Kane to the outside. He played a solid defensive game all night, using his reach to poke pucks off attacking Blackhawks’ sticks and skating ability to cut down their angles.
Jonas Brodin played 34:20 and blocked five shots. If he didn’t look so young, I’d want to check his passport because there is no way I’d believe he’s only 19-years-old by watching him play the game of ice hockey. In the first period, he was at the offensive zone blue line tracking Kane, pivoted and started skating backwards slightly behind the forward. The outlet pass missed Kane and Brodin recognized this, pivoted again, and raced down to beat the winger to the icing. A textbook mow-hawk from a blue liner who is agile and effortless on the ice as a ballet dancer is on the stage.
The Wild had nine Stanley Cup Playoff rookies in the lineup coming into tonight’s game. Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Charlie Coyle, Clayton Stoner, Tom Gilbert, Jason Zucker, Spurgeon, Brodin and Scandella got their first taste of the NHL postseason in the Windy City, no easy place to play (the United Center is aptly named the Madhouse on Madison; the crowd tonight was more electric than a July lightning storm in Minnesota). Before the game, I asked Brodziak about the emotions of playing in his first playoff game. He said that, like anyone, he’d likely have some nerves at first. Well, he and the rest of the players skating in their first playoff game sure didn’t seem all that nervous. I think I was more anxious during the game sitting way up in the United Center press box.
How invaluable was this game for the Wild youngsters and veterans experiencing their first playoff game? Only time will tell, but you could see, the youngster especially, gaining confidence as the game went on. Zucker had a great look in overtime to end it after an offensive zone faceoff win by Matt Cullen and rang the crossbar; Crawford didn’t even react to the shot. Several times, Cullen was talking to Zucker on the bench between shifts and I can only imagine the rest of the veteran players were doing the same with the young Minnesota corps.
Clearly come playoff time there is no such thing as a moral victory, especially in a game with one fortunate bounce, the Wild could’ve won. Losing stinks, especially in overtime. Yeo and the coaching staff will be breaking down film and figuring out ways to create more scoring opportunities on the Blackhawks. One of the best things to watch unfold in a seven-game series are the adjustments each team will make between games and the chess match amongst the coaching staffs, especially when it comes to line matching on home ice.
Coming into the series, if you looked at anyone predicting the outcome, Minnesota was dead on arrival. Tonight showed that the Wild is not only alive, but the team is kicking like a stubborn mule. Really though, this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has spent some time around this group. If you believed in this team, you never had a doubt it would be a good series. If not, hold on, because after the opening game, this has the potential to be a classic.