CHICAGO—Hockey is too capricious to assume much after two games of a playoff series, but here we are, assuming the Blackhawks will ether the Wild for the third straight postseason. Given a compelling reason to withhold judgment, it would be duly withheld. But the Wild haven’t offered anything, and that is a very large problem for them because the entire purpose of this second-round set was to present a convincing case that they were at last on the level of one of the league’s powerhouses. Instead, Chicago is doing all it needs to do, and its opposition is doing something far less.
It was 4–1 in favor of Chicago at the United Center on Sunday, giving the Blackhawks a commanding 2-0 series lead. Minnesota looks fresh out of new endings for a story that everyone has read before. The first meeting between these two teams offered an extraordinary pace and whiplash-inducing swings, and the Blackhawks rode through all of it to a victory. The second meeting held all the intrigue of paint drying, but Chicago patiently ground away until its breakthrough came, thanks to its stars producing the way stars ought to produce. There is, in other words, not one single thing going the Wild’s way, not in the way anything needed to go to inspire belief that this confab with the Blackhawks will be different than the others.
The Blackhawks missed a chance to squeeze some of that belief out of the Wild in Game 1, letting down after building an early 3–0 lead. They didn’t allow another opportunity to pass unseized on Sunday.
“I don’t know what team played that game,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said, “but it wasn’t us.”
No such identity crisis plagues the other side.
The Blackhawks’ collection of elite talent, when it is at its best, can completely unspool the the opposition’s self-assurance. Off the tiniest mistakes, off the most innocuous missteps, Chicago can strike. It’s unnerving and can make a team too apprehensive for its own good. Whether that prompted the Wild to be as loose with the puck as they were on Sunday is debatable. But when Yeo deemed his club’s Game 2 swoon a “between-the-ears thing,” it suggested that the Blackhawks have burrowed deep into Minnesota’s frontal lobes.
Two more goals by Patrick Kane. One apiece from Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Toews’s tally was the end product of Marian Hossa pick-pocketing Wild defenseman Ryan Suter while killing a penalty, starting a breakaway to the shorthanded goal that opened the night’s scoring. Kane’s first goal, with 20 seconds left in the second period, was another star burst fueled by a sizzling stretch pass from defenseman Duncan Keith. Sharp’s wrister finished a sequence triggered by a Wild turnover at mid-ice. Kane’s empty-netter to close the scoring hit the back of the net after he eluded three Minnesota defenders to get the shot off.
Chicago’s stars have been, well, astronomical. Through eight playoff games, the team’s core—Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith and defenseman Brent Seabrook—has accounted for 17 goals and 48 points. When they’re at this level, it is insidiously dispiriting for the other side, as there is just not that much that can be done about it. Few teams can compete with the Blackhawks when they are performing like this, and the Wild do not appear to be among those few.
“That’s been the key to the success here the last six or seven years,” Sharp said. “You have a bunch of guys that want the puck on their stick in key situations and want to be the guy to score that goal.”
In a dismayed dressing room late on Sunday, the Wild began recuperating. It wasn’t about convincing the world that they belonged here anymore. It was now about convincing themselves that this was merely one bad night. “At no point in the game were we on,” center Charlie Coyle said.
It was about insisting that their wounds weren’t mortal, that there is a path back against a team that is closing off every avenue of escape for the third straight year. It was about trying to believe the words coming out of their mouths.
“Positive or negative, years past don’t mean anything,” winger Zach Parise said. “We have to play better.”
He is right: What matters is what’s happening now. But what’s happening now suggests that what happened before will happen again.
There was Suter, the lodestar defenseman, hung with a –5 rating through two games. There was winger Thomas Vanek, also at –5. There was Vezina Trophy finalist Devan Dubnyk, the presumptive failsafe in the cage, beaten seven times in two nights.
And there were the stars on the other side, doing precisely what they needed to do. Play fast, play slow, play well—it didn’t seem to matter during a playoff weekend in Chicago. The Blackhawks and their constellation of talent figured out a way and left the Wild with a standing dare to stop them.
“I’m sure they’re feeling real good,” Yeo said. “I’m sure they feel like they’re going to win the series. But I still feel we’re going to win the series. Our team does, too.”
Any time now, they’d do well to demonstrate why.