By Allan Muir
That 4-0 beating the Minnesota Wild laid on the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night? It made for a nice moment for the home fans, but one game didn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.
For a team with aspirations of contending down the road, this series was about taking a step forward. The Wild needed to do more than just plant a speed bump in front of the Hawks, who are looking to cruise to another appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
This was gut-check time. And Minnesota answered with a sense of desperation on Friday night that the defending champs just couldn't match.
The Wild survived some sketchy goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov, and took advantage of a shaky performance by Chicago's Corey Crawford to knock off the Hawks 4-2 and even their best-of-seven series at two games a piece.
Step taken? You bet. The Wild got goals from Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon in a fast-paced and very entertaining contest. Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzus replied for the Hawks, who were held to 22 shots or fewer for the fourth consecutive game.
With the win, the Wild managed to turn what looked like a laugher of a series after Game 2 into a best-of-three. They've proved they can take can handle the Hawks at home. But the question remains: Can they win one in Chicago?
They'll get their chance Sunday night.
Here are some observations from Friday night's game:
Blackhawks vs. Wild Game 4 recap | Box score
• He was only the Third Star in the building, but to my eyes the best -- or at least, the most important -- player was Minnesota's Matt Cooke.
Making his return from a seven-game suspension, the villainous winger was a loud pair of footsteps from the moment he hit the ice. This was Cooke at his best, a whirling dervish of aggressive but controlled energy. He was credited with two takeaways, but created several other turnovers as defenders rushed plays to avoid being hit. He picked Michal Roszival's pocket to set up Fontaine's opening tally at 7:24 of the first and was in the mix all night thanks to a relentless forecheck and a willingness to drive the net.
After a low-wattage win in Game 3, this was a different, more dynamic performance from the Wild...and it was Cooke who set the tone. If he keeps playing like he wants to make up for lost time, he has it in him to change the destiny of this series.
• As brutal as Bryzgalov was in the early going, he made some terrific saves as the game wore on. None better than when he bailed out Ryan Suter by denying Sharp on a breakaway to protect Minnesota's 3-2 lead in the second. He coughs one up there and the Hawks draw even in a game where they've been outplayed by a ton. Instead, he flashes the right pad to stone Sharp's backhand attempt and shut the door on Chicago's comeback bid. No one looks at him as Minnesota's Mr. Right between the pipes, but as long as he makes the stops they need him to make, he can be Mr. Right Now.
• The biggest surprise for me in this set has been the play of Marco Scandella. The stats tonight didn't stand out--one block, one hit, one take. Even his advanced numbers were soft (he was on the ice for a team-high 16 Corsi events against at five-on-five). But he always seems to be in the right place to make the right play, getting his stick in the passing lines or tying up his man. And that was a heck of a pop he laid on Marian Hossa tonight. He's one to watch as this series plays out.
• The most surprising element of Chicago's failure was their inability to take advantage of a netminder who was primed to be lit up. When Sharp exploited Bryzgalov's five-hole at 19:21 of the first for one of the softest goals you'll ever see at this level, it came on the Hawks' fourth shot of the period. Fourth. Handzus' re-direct 6:28 into the second? That counted as their sixth shot. They had just nine shots midway through the game and ended up with 20. That's not enough. Not even close.
Not to take anything away from Minnesota's defense. They shut down the middle of the ice, pushing the Hawks to the outside and forcing them to thread the needle to get anything on Bryzgalov. But they were able to do that because they showed a level of desire that Chicago just couldn't match.
The Hawks average 51 shots attempts per game. Tonight they settled for 41. This one was there for them. They just didn't want it badly enough.
• And they weren't anywhere near to being disciplined enough. The Hawks took five penalties in this one compared to just two for the Wild. And their timing couldn't have been worse. Three of them came after they fell behind 3-2 on Niederreiter's second-period softie, playing havoc with Joel Quenneville's lines and forcing them to burn time off the clock in their own zone. They did a nice job limiting the Wild to five shots on their first four power plays, but were burned by Spurgeon's goal at 3:47 of the third.
Just five teams spent less time on the PK during the regular season than the Hawks. In the playoffs, it's a different story. They've been shorthanded 42 times, second only to Pittsburgh. The PK is humming along at 90.5 percent, but they're tempting fate every time they put it to the test.
• It's not that Jonathan Toews was bad in Game 4. It's that he was a ghost. Arguably one of the five best forwards in the league, he played 23:22 without making any sort of impression. When have you ever seen that before?
Toews won 15-of-29 draws and apparently landed two shots on net, but he did nothing you'd notice until he was caught on camera slamming his stick in frustration late in the third.
"This series is long from over," he said. "So that’s the good news. We've got a chance to redeem ourselves and be better than we have been."
That "being better" thing? Yeah, it starts with him finding his compete button. And with Patrick Kane, whose most memorable moment in more than 24 minutes of ice came when he was steamrolled by Parise trying to exit the zone just before Spurgeon's clincher. And there are plenty of fingers left to point at Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad...well, the list of Chicago forwards who didn't answer the call tonight goes 12 deep.
• Sharp has always been a streaky scorer -- remember that tear he went on before the Olympic rosters were named that practically forced Steve Yzerman to name him to Team Canada? So it'll be interesting to see if he can build off his goal tonight. It was just the second of the postseason for Sharp, who has had his chances this spring but just hasn't been able to find the range. Now that he has, he could be the one who gets Chicago back on track.