By Brian Hamilton
CHICAGO – Far away from anything resembling a scoring chance during the third period in the suddenly panicked United Center, Patrick Kane collected the puck near Minnesota's blue line. The Chicago Blackhawks had blown a 2-0 lead against the tenacious Wild. So Kane started skating hard through a neutral zone that Minnesota typically overstuffs with sticks and bodies.
Sudddenly, Kane was in the offensive zone.
And then some very exceptional hockey things happened.
Kane split two defenders while stick-handling one-handed. As he hit the face-off circle to the left of the cage, Wild defender Jonas Brodin dove at his ankles. At the moment that Brodin was almost hilariously splayed face-down on the ice, a backhand shot leapt off Kane's blade. It hit the post and the crossbar and nestled into the net, and Chicago's most spectacular scorer had made a spectacular play precisely when his team needed it most. Minnesota, meanwhile, just kept watching as Kane circled behind its net and up along the boards with his arms open to a crowd gone wild.
“Showtime!” Kane screamed, with a fist pump for emphasis.
The defending Stanley Cup champions usually don't need any favors. The Wild nevertheless were ready to supply them in their 5-2 loss in Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinal, one that was surprisingly there for the taking even as Minnesota more or less insisted on giving it away.
A wearied club barely 48 hours removed from a seven-game grind against the Colorado Avalanche actually outworked and outchanced a rested, potent Chicago team that was opening the series in the ear-splitting comforts of home. But nearly every bad thing that undermined the Wild were their own fault, from penalties to their indifferent or disorganized defense that precipitated every scoring chance by the Blackhawks.
Game Recap | Box Score | Highlights
• If the Wild insist on playing imperfect, self-defeating hockey, the Blackhawks, who are teeming with finishers, will exact punishment. Two high-sticking penalties by Minnesota? Two power-play goals for the Blackhawks to create Chicago's two-goal lead that the Hawks brought into the third period. A moment of relaxation for the Wild after storming back to tie the game? Kane picks up the puck and embarrasses what seemed like every uniformed member of Minnesota's squad en route to the go-ahead score. Lose Kane again on a rush? He sneaks in behind the defense to whack a deflection into an open net for his second score, Chicago's fourth overall, and a game-sealer.
“This is a talented team,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “They don't need 30 opportunities to put five in the net. It's pretty tough when you're giving up backdoor plays and plays in front of the net. It's not just effort. It's not just trying hard. It's doing things the right way. There wasn't enough urgency in doing the little things that make a difference this time of the year.”
• Talent sure makes a difference. It's how Chicago can discourage opponents so thoroughly, and set the tone for this series. Given a sliver of space, or just one misstep by their opposition, the Blackhawks have the firepower to be among the most punitive teams in the league. Likewise, no matter how good or bad they happen to be at any moment, and no matter what the scoreboard reads, talent like Kane's or Marian Hossa's or Jonathan Toews's allows Chicago to alter the dynamic in a blink.
“They're game-breakers,” Blackhawks center Ben Smith said. “They're guys that can change the game in a shift. That's what they did tonight. We're happy they're on our side.”
• Indeed, the Wild were purposeful and unrelenting beginning with the second period and carrying on into the third, and their effort produced two goals in seven minutes to tie the game. It was a commendable push-back on the road. Then Kane wiped it out. “Sometimes you make some lucky plays, and they find a way in,” he said. “I think you can go up and down the roster and say everyone's done some big things in big gams and scored some big goals. It's part of everyone's game that's been around here, with a winning attitude.”
• What makes the Chicago so maddeningly difficult for its opponents is the stifling pressure it applies that forces the other team to play almost perfectly. The Blackhawks won't be, and shouldn't be, satisfied with their overall Game 1. Yet Minnesota couldn't take advantage of Chicago's inferior effort while the Hawks pounced on every chance they got.
• Brodin couldn't control his stick during the first period and earned a double-minor penalty that led to a power play goal by Chicago's Bryan Bickell. Brodin again took a high-sticking minor in the second period, and on the ensuing power play, Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad skated from the high slot without too much resistance and flipped a backhand pass toward the net. The puck scooted through teammate Bryan Bickell's legs and found its way to Hossa, who has 45 career postseason goals. He was basically sunning and ordering cocktails about six inches from the net, without a Wild defender in his vicinity. He didn't waste the chance, punching in a score. After the requisite fist pump celebration, the veteran winger lifted his head and pointed toward Saad.
“What a play!” Hossa exclaimed correctly. But Saad's niftiness was matched only by the special teams ineptitude by Minnesota that allowed it to happen.
• Oh the missed chances on the other end, like the 18 Minnesota shots that didn't even hit the net. Or Mikael Granlund's point-blank chance at the end of some tic-tac-toe passing that would have tied the game in the second period but instead sailed over the crossbar.
“I felt we had a handful of guys that were below-average, at best,” Yeo said.
• A handful of passengers is a handful too many in this series against a superb team, but it was a lesson re-learned on Friday. The Blackhawks ousted the Wild in five games in a first-round series last spring. There was more than a hint of fight in the visitors in Game 1, yes, and Chicago may yet have to win this the hard way. But mostly Game 1 looked like the team with the superior talent was just warming up, while the other side watched its best chance to seize momentum skate right by.