CHICAGO – Some weird things went down at the United Center on Friday night. At the end, the Chicago Blackhawks emerged with a 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild in the opener of their second round playoff series, but it was best to grab hold of a railing or a piece of heavy furniture to retain balance in the immediate aftermath. Both sides looked alternately marvelous and ghastly, flickering on and off like fluorescent bulbs loosely screwed into place.
There was bad defense and bad goaltending. There was superior puck movement and shot-making. There was enough from both sides of it to suggest the whole night was lifted from a 1987 NHL mixtape. It was a dizzy evening that blurred most conclusions. Minnesota’s comeback from an early three-goal deficit was a statement against the team that has bounced it from the last two postseasons… but Chicago skates into Sunday’s Game 2 with a 1-0 lead. Here are three thoughts to try to make sense of some of it:
1. Devan Dubnyk wasn’t nearly as good as he needs to be, nor did he get much help.
The Wild’s Vezina Trophy finalist appeared to be their most menacing retort to the Blackhawks’ trove of firepower; Dubnyk won both of his starts against Chicago this year, saving 56 of 57 shots in the two games. Then he surrendered a goal on the first shot he saw Friday, essentially blasting any psychological edge into atoms. Most galling, though, was the game-winner late in the second period, when Blackhawks rookie Teuvo Teravainen threw a prayer towards the net from beyond the faceoff circle and Dubnyk completely whiffed on the glove save.
“I didn’t pick it up until it was about five, six feet in front of me,” Dubnyk said. “Just kind of a flash. That’s why I kind of waved at it and missed it. The way it came off the wall, I didn’t see it come off the guy’s stick, I didn’t pick it up at all. That’s my job. My job is to get out and find a way to find the puck at all times. I didn’t do that there and it cost me. It’s certainly a disappointing play to give up when we work as hard as we did to come back.”
He can grind his teeth over that one, certainly, but he wasn’t the only culprit in the Wild defensive zone. The Blackhawks jumped to a 3-0 first period lead thanks to a Minnesota blue line crew that someone forgot to toggle to “on” before the puck dropped. Ryan Suter was no impediment to Brandon Saad thundering toward the net for the first score. Marco Scandella was undressed by Chicago’s Brad Richards, just before Richards set up Patrick Kane for a laser-guided one-timer and a second goal. The third tally arrived when the Blackhawks’ Marcus Kruger cruised into the crease without a hint of harassment from anyone in a Wild sweater, poking a backhand through Dubnyk’s wickets for a third goal on seven total shots.
It’s so obvious as to barely be worth saying, but if Minnesota expect to be onerous and win a series by gumming up the neutral and defensive zones against the Blackhawks, it can’t afford any more periods like Friday’s first from its defensemen. “That’s why I didn’t pull him,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of Dubnyk. “He wasn’t at fault in those plays.”
2. Teravainen offered at least a glimmer of hope that he can spark some supplementary scoring
As he stood before his locker stall Friday, the 20-year-old rookie’s playoff beard comprised just a few wisps of whiskers populating the area above his upper lip. “It’s getting there,” Teravainen said. “Maybe next year.” What he lacked in postseason hirsuteness, he made up for in postseason performance. Maybe that second-period goal was a fluke, a shot that not even Teravainen believed would find the back of the net, but it could be a shot of confidence that brings out his playmaking abilities for the remainder of the series.
“He has special vision and his hands are better than most players in the league,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “Just give him time and he’ll be a great player.”
The time is now, of course, for a forward reinserted into the lineup after veteran Kris Versteeg fell out of favor during a first-round series against Nashville. (Teravainen was in the lineup to start the playoffs but was scratched for the final four games against the Predators.) More from Teravainen, who had nine points in 34 regular season games, would alleviate the burden on the Blackhawks’ top guns. They are producing at a high rate nevertheless; there were another six points on Friday combined from core players Kane, Saad, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. But at some juncture, an opponent will find a way to muck all that up. Minnesota, in fact, can be especially adept at mucking. Secondary scoring is paramount to any Stanley Cup run, and if Friday’s score opens Teravainen’s mind and opportunities, all the better for Chicago. “Sometimes you gotta shoot,” Teravainen said after the game, “and good things happen.”
3. The Blackhawks won a hockey game but blew a chance at dominating the mind game.
Surely, Chicago will take the victory and the confidence that it can solve Dubnyk. Still, even mere maintenance of the 3-0 first period lead would have injected doubt into Minnesota’s minds. As much as the Wild claims it is different than the teams ejected from the playoffs by Chicago for two years running, how could it truly believe as much if it never had a chance in Game 1?
This is not a question Minnesota has to answer at this point. “We’re not rattled right now,” Yeo said. And nor should his club be. Neither side seized the run of play with authority. The Wild can spend a day or two confident that for whatever problems the Blackhawks present, there are answers available. Chicago, meanwhile, had an opportunity to eliminate that belief. The win is more valuable in the short-term, but it might have been nice to have both.
“I kind of feel like we got away with this one,” Hjalmarsson said, and everyone will see Sunday how long that can last.