The Minnesota Wild doesn’t need a pair of ruby red skates to remind it there’s no place like home. Tonight the club looks to climb back into its Second Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.
Minnesota is familiar with returning to the State of Hockey in a hole. Just like in its first round matchup against the Colorado Avalanche, the Wild dropped the opening two games of its best-of-seven series in Chicago. The Wild won all three of its home games against the Avs Round 1, but the team knows it faces a much different opponent tonight.
The defending Stanley Cup champs are grizzled veteran playoff performers compared to the upstart Avs. Minnesota will have to bring its game to another level in a number of areas to get back into the series. The Wild looks to bring more “jam,” as Head Coach Mike Yeo put it, tonight in front of the home faithful. The bench boss believes the team played good, but not great, in Chicago, an effort that can’t be repeated in Game 3.
Even with the series deficit, and not playing up to the level the Wild believes it should be at, the club was in both games. Speaking to the media, Yeo thought the scoring chances were even, if not in Minnesota’s favor. More than anything, Yeo thinks the club needs to regroup, which will help on home ice.
“For us it’s the mental hurdle,” Yeo said. “I really believe the first two games, I don’t think we were completely on top of our game, but we did a lot of good things, we were right there with them.
“We’ve leveled the playing field, but we have to take the next step; we have to push past being close or even to them, we have to get ahead of them.”
Defenseman Keith Ballard is in the lineup for the first time in the postseason. The 31-year-old has appeared in 14 career playoff games. Yeo said that he wants the blueliner to use his skating, especially in helping create offense. In Game 2 the Blackhawks blocked 25 shots. Yeo wants Ballard and the rest of the D-corps to find seams getting the pucks to the net, whether it is by moving laterally on the blue line to get it to the net.
“We had a lot of opportunities to get the puck on the blue line,” Yeo said. “He’s a guy that can move across the line with his head up and maybe the ability to get some of those pucks through.”
Yeo also likes Ballard’s ability to engage physically. Chicago is a team that likes to hold onto the puck in the neutral and offensive zones, something the Wild needs to thwart.
“You need a physical presence along with that skating ability to help separate and alleviate some defensive zone time,” Yeo said.
The Wild will shift around its forward lines. The Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville will remain intact. Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu will center Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. Yeo would like that line to play a heavy game and get involved in the forecheck. The best way to counter Chicago’s ability to possess the puck: take it away and posses it yourself.
“I would love to see that line spend a lot of time in the offensive zone,” Yeo said. “If they’re playing their game they should bring momentum to our game.”
Erik Haula will center Matt Moulson and Justin Fontaine. Earlier in the season, Moulson and Fontaine showed signs of chemistry. Yeo hopes that skating with Fontaine and the speedy Haula, will allow Moulson to relax and find his game.
Rounding out the lineup will be the line of Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick. In Game 2, McCormick scored his first goal of the postseason.
Returning to Xcel Energy Center means the Wild will get last change and Yeo can get the matchups he’s looking for. Against the Avs, Yeo often put Haula’s line against Colorado’s top unit. However, we’ve seen Chicago’s depth and ability to roll four lines, so we’ll see how Yeo counters tonight.
“We’ll be looking for matchups, but at the same time this is a deep team,” Yeo said. “Some of it might be personnel matchup or a zone matchup…If we’re going to beat these guys then we’re going to need everybody to be able to play against everybody and every line to be able to battle against the guy that they’re facing.
“We will not let their moves dictate how we go about our business.”
Mother nature has finally cooperated for Minnesota’s pregame plans. The club will host a pregame party from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Gate 2 of Xcel Energy Center prior to tonight’s contest (puck drop is at 8 p.m. State of Hockey Time).
The pre-game party will include a live DJ, pig roast, Happy Hour prices and NHL alumni autographs (J.P. Parise, Lou Nanne, Murray Oliver, Ted Hampson). KFAN will also broadcast live – Dan Barriero from 3 to 6:30 p.m., followed by pre-game coverage from 6:30-7:30 p.m. The FOX Sports North Girls will also be on hand for autographs and photos.