By Brian Hamilton
It was very late Friday when Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo sounded the alarm about what awaited his team when it next faced the Chicago Blackhawks, and he spoke from experience. Last spring, the Wild opened a first-round series against them with an overtime loss on the road. They felt they were in position to strike and upend series momentum the next time out. Instead they lost 5-2, and ultimately bowed out of the series in five games.
“They taught us a lesson last year in Game 2,” Yeo said Friday.
Apparently his roster is full of painstakingly slow learners.
After starting sluggishly, showing some fight and then collapsing late in Game 1 of this year's postseason series against the Blackhawks, the Wild started sluggishly, showed some fight and then collapsed late in Game 2 on Sunday. The result was a 4-1 win and a two-games-to-none series lead for the defending Stanley Cup champions. The intermittent sparks of interest and effectiveness from Minnesota have been so insanely far from enough against Chicago, a club whose top players have kicked into gear, a club that appears to be beating the Wild at their own grind-it-out, out-effort-the-other-guys game.
Game 3 is Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Xcel Center, and Minnesota desperately needs to apply what it's learned, because the series is close to out of hand. Again.
Some more observations from Sunday's game:
Recap | Box score | Series breakdown and prediction
• This is what the Blackhawks paid Bryan Bickell for. After the burly winger collected nine goals and 17 points in the run to the 2013 Stanley Cup title, Chicago rewarded Bickell with a four-year, $16 million extension. He responded with a middling regular season featuring just 11 goals, four assists and a minus-6 rating in 59 games. But shifted on to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Bickell has recaptured his form, and he was the best player on the ice on Sunday. He was involved in all of Chicago's first three goals, assisting on two and then ripping the game-sealing third past Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov late in the third period. Bickell's heads-up outlet pass to a cherry-picking Hossa sparked the breakaway that led to Toews scoring the first Chicago goal. He returned a nice pass to Brandon Saad to set up the second score. Then came his own score off a two-on-one with Hossa, and even that was just moments after Bickell clanged a shot off the post that was a few inches from going in. He even had an earlier pass to Hossa for a would-be breakaway that Hossa fumbled when he overskated the puck. Bickell now has five goals and three assists this postseason. Surely, Chicago wanted more from him during the season for all the millions it delivered to Bickell's bank account, but it won't complain about a terrific return on investment at the most opportune time.
• For all the plaudits Yeo received as a result of ferrying Minnesota into the playoffs and through an upset of the Avalanche in the first round, he simply hasn't had his team ready twice against Chicago. The Blackhawks admitted they were a bit rusty early in Game 1 after a long layoff, and yet the Wild's first period in the series opener was by far its worst of the night. In Game 2, theoretically buoyed by the Game 1 comeback and a little bit of desperation, Minnesota managed just two shots on goal in the first period. It was the lowest single-period total in franchise playoff history. The Wild now have gone scoreless in the first two periods of each of the two games against the Blackhawks, digging two-goal deficits each time. It's on the players to be ready, but it's on the coach to make sure that happens. Utter and inexplicable failure on both counts for the Wild thus far.
• Speaking of failure: Zach Parise on Sunday? Three shots, no points, minus-3. Mikko Koivu? Two shots, no points, minus-2. This after the pair combined for four goals and 16 points in the first round series against Colorado. Between them they have just one assist in this series -- a Parise helper in Game 1. It's an eerie, inauspicious repeat of the no-show the Wild's star forwards compiled against Chicago last spring. In that first round ouster, Parise had one goal and was a minus-7 while Koivu had zero points and was a minus-6. No surprise that Minnesota is going nowhere if defenseman Clayton Stoner appears to be the most productive player on the ice; the best chance either Parise or Koivu concocted Sunday was Parise kicking a puck toward the net in the first period that Chicago goalie Corey Crawford had to snag out of mid-air. The Blackhawks' stars – Toews, Hossa, Bickell, Patrick Kane – are performing at a more than acceptable level when it matters. The Wild's best players are again in the midst of a disappearing act.
• At some point Saad was going to get rewarded for his work, and that point was Sunday. The young Blackhawks winger broke a 19-game goalless streak with two scores in Game 2. Before Kane worked his magic late for the go-ahead goal in the series opener, Saad's skating through the slot and threading a backhand pass through defenders (and Bickell's legs) to Hossa for a score was the highlight of Game 1. In Game 2, he and Bickell worked a back-and-forth just as a penalty ended and Saad ripped in a shot from the slot for Chicago's second goal – one that would ultimately represent the game-winner. He later out-hustled a defender for a loose puck and flicked in an empty-net score. Saad is skating on the third line and likely to stay there, so this probably doesn't portend a breakout, but it adds one more confident player to the lineup and one more potential layer of scoring for Minnesota to fear.
• In Game 2, Crawford made 18 saves for Chicago. Everyone else on the Blackhawks had 25. Chicago blocked that many Minnesota shots before Crawford even had a chance to save them, and it seemed emblematic of a very big problem for the Wild: Too often the team that is supposed to get by on hustle and hard work is getting out-hustled and outworked. Consider the plays that led to the first and third Chicago scores. Hossa's breakaway started the first scoring sequence, but it was Toews out-skating Koivu – after starting a few strides behind the Wild center, no less – to charge in for the put-back goal and a 1-0 lead. Later, to kickstart the odd-man rush that led to Bickell's third-period goal, Hossa won a puck battle along the boards and then outmuscled and outraced the Wild up the track to assist on the score. Minnesota once again applied better pressure starting in the second period and had its chances. But it's not winning the effort battle by nearly a large enough margin – if it's winning it at all – to make up for its offensive firepower deficiencies.
The Blackhawks and Wild meet in Game 3 on Tues. night in Minnesota at 9 p.m. ET (CNBCS, TSN, RDS2)