By Brian Hamilton
For two periods, goodness gracious, was this a boring hockey game. But for the Minnesota Wild, boring was good. Boring overcame their deficits in firepower and goaltending and lulled the superior Chicago Blackhawks into a meandering, mostly indifferent effort in Game 3 on Tuesday night. Boring got the Wild back into a series when they were on the brink of irrelevance.
Minnesota's 4-0 whitewash of the defending Stanley Cup champions at Xcel Energy Center – with all four scores coming in the third period – offered hope, if nothing close to a guarantee. It cut Chicago's series lead to 2-1, but last postseason the Wild scrounged up a Game 3 win against the Blackhawks for their only victory in that series. Some sort of push-back against Chicago was expected, and this was at least the effort that Minnesota needed. the Wild got reliable goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov and the players who were expected to produce actually produced. That was more than enough. Now Chicago will test how long Minnesota can keep it going.
Some observations on Game 3:
• Bryzgalov had gone eight years since recording his last playoff shutout: when he was between the pipes for the Anaheim Ducks in a second round matchup against the Colorado Avalanche. Heading into a Game 3 vs. Chicago that the Wild could not afford to lose, he was a miserable 1-4 with a 3.89 goals-against average and an .830 save percentage this postseason. Basically, his team didn't let him lose. Chicago managed just 19 shots on goal and the Wild blocked 15 others. Bryzgalov had his lucky moments, too – Patrick Kane skated in and had an open net to cut a 2-0 deficit in half early in the third period but lost the puck before he could get a shot off. But the bottom line was Bryzgalov being solid or better for the first time in maybe this entire playoff run for Minnesota. There was no other option if the team had any aspirations to survive this.
• Hey, look! It's Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund! The former two were the Wild's top two scorers during the regular season and the latter was maybe the second-best player on the ice, after Parise, during the team's first round series against the Avalanche. But they had all but disappeared against the Blackhawks, with Parise and Pominville each managing just one assist in the first two games in Chicago, and Granlund failing to get on the scoresheet entirely. On Tuesday, Parise assisted on the Wild's second score, then whacked in a rebound for their third, a power-play goal that erased all doubt about the result in the third period. Pominville collected two assists and Granlund netted two goals, though one was a late empty-netter. Minnesota won't match Chicago in terms of depth of firepower, but it has to get something from the artillery it does have. That production finally arrived on Tuesday.
• There was much talk about the Blackhawks reversing a trend in which they had lost the first road game in eight consecutive playoff series. Well, make it nine. Despite the game being scoreless after two periods, Chicago looked like it was in a bit of a fog right from the start and never quite emerged. Hustle plays that the Blackhawks used to build their two-games-to-none series lead suddenly went the other way: Erik Haula outracing Patrick Kane to get in position to open the scoring early in the third period was the most glaring example. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville tinkered with his lineup yet again, with forwards Kris Versteeg and Brandon Bollig jumping back into the mix for the injured Andrew Shaw and Jeremy Morin while defenseman Sheldon Brookbank replaced Nick Leddy, who had played every single game for Chicago for three years running. Since we're talking about fourth-line forwards and a third-pair blue-liner, it's arguable that it might not have mattered who was in there, but whatever Quenneville was looking for, he didn't get it. Chicago has to rediscover its edge, and whatever resolve it used to win at the Xcel Energy Center in Game 4 last season, in order to prevent the series from becoming too interesting for comfort.
• Credit Wild coach Mike Yeo for his own tinkering that worked. He shuffled lines as one might expect a coach would do when his team is facing a daunting series deficit. Minnesota controlled most of the pace and possession even if it wasn't getting on the board. One good example of subtle improvement arrived via the line combo of Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. They collected just one assist between them, but intensely pursued the puck all evening and helped set a tone. Koivu, Coyle and Niederreiter were out for 24, 23 and 23 shifts, respectively, each of which was at or near the top of the ledger for Wild forwards on Tuesday. Yeo couldn't get his team out of the starting blocks during the two games in Chicago, but while the reward of goals wasn't there for the first two periods on Tuesday, his changes sparked the Wild and helped put his team in position to dictate terms in Game 3.
• It bears mentioning only because it's ridiculous, but can we talk about Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who literally has to let his play do the talking for the next few weeks? After taking a puck to the throat in Game 2, he is in fact not cleared to speak for some time, but he was in the lineup on Tuesday, wearing some protective gear around his neck...and he blocked a team-high four shots yet again.
The Blackhawks and Wild will meet in Game 4 at 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday in Minnesota (NBCSN, TSN, RDS).