To outside observers, there is a world of difference in the games of hockey and chess. Hockey is built on speed, a fast moving game without hesitation, players zooming across a clean white ice surface in pursuit of a black orb. Chess is methodical, pieces shifting deliberately in an attempt to control real estate on the checkered board. It looks like one is based on brute force, while the other appears to be a tactical encounter.
However, a seven-game Stanley Cup Playoffs series between teams can be as strategic as a match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.
“We’re trying to do the same exact thing to them that they’re trying to do to us,” Minnesota Wild defenseman Jordan Leopold said. “It’s just a matter of the chess match and playing percentage hockey and playing the odds. ”
Yesterday, the Wild captured the first piece in its opening-round series against the St. Louis Blues, 4-2, at Scottrade Center. The club executed its game plan and bottled up the Blues, allowing only 21 shots on goaltender Devan Dubnyk.
The 34-year-old is a veteran of 72 playoff games and knows that there is no time to be satisfied in the postseason. He said the Wild enjoyed the win last night, but is already prepping for the next one. The club had an optional practice this afternoon before tomorrow’s Game 3 at 2 p.m. Defensemen Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon took the afternoon off, along with forwards Justin Fontaine and Thomas Vanek. On Saturday, Minnesota will deploy the same lineup it used in Game 1.
For the Wild and its D-corps, the club doesn’t want to alter what has made it successful over the past few months. Minnesota’s speed game is a big reason for its second-half surge and the team’s defenseman set the tone like knights on a chessboard.
“It can’t happen unless our D are performing at the level that we need them to,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “Defending and separating and creating turnovers, but execution in how they move the puck, how they transport the puck, allowing those speed plays to develop.”
Leopold’s young defensive partner, rook Matt Dumba, made an immediate impact in his playoff debut. The youngster scored a power play goal and was a part of the team’s speed attack, castling into the offensive zone whenever the opportunity arises.
“I like playing a fast game, definitely just using speed,” Dumba said. “That’s a big factor of our team. If we can keep doing that for however long we go, I think that’ll be huge for us.”
Of course, after the Wild captured Game 1 on the Blues’ home ice, the club is expecting a strong response from its opponent.
“I would fully expect them to play a physical brand of hockey and try to impose themselves on us,” Yeo said. “I expect them to throw everything at the net and crash the net real hard. I don’t think that’s a real big secret.”
The Wild kept the Blues on the perimeter and blocked shot attempts like pawns protecting the king. Minnesota blocked 20 shots, including 14 by the team’s blueliners. It is that type of sacrifice that is typical of playoff hockey, but the club has been doing it for some time now.
“I don’t think we’ve really changed anything from the past couple of months — we’ve been blocking shots, we’ve been playing big for two months,” Leopold said. “It’s easy to roll in to when you’re playing good hockey going into the playoffs.”
The Blues will attempt to even the series before it shifts back to the State of Hockey. However, the Wild wants to stay assertive and push closer to the elusive checkmate.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re not sitting around watching and waiting to see what they’re going to bring at us,” Yeo said. “We’ve got our own game plan and that we’ve got to make sure we’re aggressive ourselves.”
The best chess players can think several moves in advance, but hockey teams need to stay in the moment. While it’s important to be able to anticipate and react on the ice, a winning club has to keep its eyes on the board and not the already captured pieces.
“We just need to be relentless and be composed at times,” Leopold said. “Playoffs, there’s some ups and downs.
“We just need to stay even keel and roll with the punches as they come.”