Unpredictable drama big part of Wild playoff magic

John Gilbert

Packed Wild crowd of 19,238 reacted to Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s goal that tied Game 3 at 1-1.  -John Gilbert photo
Packed Wild crowd of 19,238 reacted to Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s goal that tied Game 3 at 1-1. -John Gilbert photo

 

The drama of the Minnesota Wild facing the best team in the NHL in the Chicago Blackhawks has been punctured by some of the most unkind and unfair fluke injuries imaginable. The eighth-seeded Wild needed everything they had to click with perfection in order to have a chance against the high-flying Blackhawks, but Minnesota’s misfortune started even before the playoffs began.
    Before the lockout-shortened season, the Wild learned that Josh Harding, who was both a backup and an alternate goaltender with Niklas Backstrom, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Instead of quitting the game he loves to tend to his personal situation, Harding insisted he was going to fight the disease, and keep playing. His first game, he won by a shutout. His second and third, however, were less effective, and he took himself out of the goalie picture, starting his last game January 30.
    Harding did work himself back into the lineup, about the time ace sniper Dany Heatley started playing his best -- then he was rag-dolled from behind and thrown to the ice and when he put his hand down to break his fall, he separated his shoulder. Rather than try to play with one arm, he underwent surgery and will be back next fall, ready to go.
    To make up for his loss, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher acquired Jason Pomerville, an outstanding player from the Buffalo Sabres, and another one of those natural leaders that every team wants and needs. Pomerville scored right away, and kept scoring, giving the Wild two scoring lines. Then Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings drilled him with a clean and flagrant elbow to the chin. He went down, backwards, obviously stunned, and the back of his head whiplashed off the ice. He missed the last three games, and the first three of the playoffs, with the after-effects of a concussion. Brown didn’t even get a minor penalty, but the NHL suspended him for the last two regular-season games, but said they didn’t want Brown to miss any playoff games. Funny, but Pominville didn’t want to miss any playoff games, either.
    Still, the Wild was gathered up and ready for some giant-killing when they went to Chicago to start the playoffs. But in warmups, Backstrom went down for a warmup save and stayed down, finally limping to the bench and out with one of those “lower body injuries.” What it was, was a pulled groin muscle, even though some of the newby would-be hockey media types insisted it was a wrenched knee. For those who don’t realize it, goaltenders have to be like Plasticman for all the gymnastic lunges and instant  reversal moves they need to make. You can’t do that with a pulled groin, so Backstrom was out.
    In came Josh Harding, and he played heroically in Games 1, 2 and 3, when the Wild snatched a 3-2 overtime victory in Saint Paul. There was a resurgence of hope among the Wild faithful, and it would all come to a focal point in Game 4. Harding started fine in Game 4, despite an early goal by Patrick Sharp, but later in the first period, Harding went down for a save and Jonathan Toews came crashing into the crease and landed on top of Harding. He got up, tried to unkink his leg, but had to leave the game. In came Darcy Kuemper -- who had been called up when it was clear Backstrom couldn’t come back right away.
   To prevent teams from faking an injury to stall for time, the rules say you can’t warm up a backup goaltender, so Kuemper came in cold. The first shot he saw was from Patrick Sharp, a darting missile from the top of the left circle that beat him, short side, and it was 2-0. For the third period, the Wild had to dress Niklas Backstrom, just to have a backup goalie on the bench. The final score was 3-0, so the teams go back to Chicago for Game 5 with the Wild facing win-or-else elimination.
    Pominville did dress for Game 4, and saw limited duty, where his shot was appreciated on the faltering Minnesota power play. But it was deflating, for a big crowd at Xcel Center eager to see the true drama of playoffs one more time, without realizing the drama would be how many Wild players would be able to participate.


SCENE TO REMEMBER

   
   The drama leading up to Game 4 was all because of Game 3, which was truly a day to remember for all the hockey fans packing Xcel Energy Center. The Wild played their best, jumping on the Blackhawks every shift of the game, and won 3-2 in overtime. It was a special game, because while the veteran stars of the Wild were superb, key plays were contributed by the Wild’s three sensational rookies -- Jonas Brodin, Charley Coyle, and Jason Zucker.
      Brodin, who is only 19, has been fantastic on defense, pairing with Ryan Suter, who has taught him the ropes of the NHL and also how important it is to be able to play half of every game. He did that all season, and showed his amazing poise in the playoffs.
    Coyle, who is 21, made a fantastic play to open the third period. Tied 1-1 since the first period, the Wild dazzled 19,238 fans early in the third when Coyle got the puck on the end boards and started skating behind the net from the left. Hotly pursued by two defenders, Coyle kept going, seemingly unaware that Zach Parise was coming behind him, toward the front of the net. Seemingly by radar, Coyle suddenly snapped a pass out front, and Parise caught it, stepped to the slot, and hoisted a perfect backhander that went into the upper right extremity of the net.
    “Charlie did a good job on the forecheck,” said Parise. “I didn’t know if he even knew I was there.”

 

Chicago’s Jonathan Toews crashed over goaltender Josh Harding in Game 3, similar to the Game 4 play that knocked Harding out of the game. -John Gilbert photo
Chicago’s Jonathan Toews crashed over goaltender Josh Harding in Game 3, similar to the Game 4 play that knocked Harding out of the game. -John Gilbert photo


    While the crowd of media engulfed Parise, I singled out Coyle and asked about his laser-guided pass. “I just took a glance,” Coyle said. “I know Zach likes to shoot, so he’s going to get open in position to shoot, so I had a good chance of hitting him with a pass out front. When I went on behind the net, I looked back and said, ‘Please, let me see his shot go in!’ And just then I saw it hit the upper corner.”
   But the Blackhawks tied the game with 2:46 left. Outshot 37-27 for the game, and outplayed for most of it, the best team in the NHL played opportunist, thanks to the brilliance of Patrick Kane. It was an interesting play, because Matt Cullen flipped the puck into the Chicago zone, and went for a change. His linemates came with him, but Cal Clutterbuck made a meaningful pause on his way by skating into Jonathan Toews near the bench. That caused his replacement to have to wait to get on. As Mikko Koivu, Parise, and Coyle came on, with defenseman Suter and Brodin, the Blackhawks were steaming up the far side. Patrick Sharp fed Kane, who rushed in on the left. The first Chicago winger drove hard for the net, and as the Wild retreated to defend, Kane instead passed to the unguarded trailer, defenseman Duncan Keith, who moved to the top of the left circle and drilled his shot past Harding.
   That sent the fans to the edges of their seats, and the game to overtime. At 2:15 of overtime, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who had scored the first goal for the Wild, got the puck to Matt Cullen behind the net. Cullen was tripped, and as he flopped to the ice, he nudged the puck ahead to Zucker, on the left side of the cage. Zucker, who is also 21, and who was in the midst of his best game for the Wild, quickly flipped a high, hard shot that fooled Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford and hit the short side, over Crawford’s shoulder. The Wild had won 3-2.
   Zucker, who scored an overtime goal when he played at Denver University, called it the biggest goal of his life. I asked him if he saw any opening, and he said: “I just tried to get it on net.” As for Cullen, his centerman, Zucker said: I don’t know how he makes some of those passes he makes to me; it’s ridiculous. Cullen has been there for me all year.”
   It was a festive mood in the arena, and in the dressing room. And the fact that it didn’t mean anything in Game 4, when the Blackhawks played another of their flawless games to frustrate and subdue the Wild, nothing that can happen the rest of the series can take away from that special night, when everybody connected to the Wild as player, coach, fan, or media type, learned about the magic of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
   Some of the published accounts referred to the crowd as “an announced crowd of 19,238.” The people reporting that can be excused, because they’re so used to Timberwolves, or Gopher football games, where tickets sold are announced as attendance, but anyone present could attest that the place was only half full. In the case of last Sunday’s Wild-Blackhawks game, the word “announced” was not necessary.
   In the first period, I ventured down from the press box to mingle with the crowd, with my plan being to wind up at one of my favorite spots to shoot photos. During the regular season, it’s not difficult to get to one of those locations and shoot away. But on this night, I never got a clean view of the rink from any standing spot, and I wound up finding a partial vantage point two or three deep behind some standing-room fans. Turned out OK, although that was the period when most of the scoring took place.
   On Monday, the day after the game, I drove from Duluth to Minneapolis and was able to tune in a Canadian hockey station on satellite radio. They were interviewing Pierre Maguire, the ever-present guy to does a good job of television color commentary on selected games. In the playoffs, the selections are pretty much every night. One of the announcers asked Maguire about the Wild-Chicago series, and he said he enjoyed coming to Xcel Center because it was such a great scene. It was loud, celebratory, and, he said, the fans in Minnesota are very knowledgable -- they knew when to cheer and understood the nuances of what all was going on.
    It was a great tribute to Minnesota hockey fans -- the same people that the non-hockey types in the Minneapolis media refer to as being stupid, because they attend games even when the Wild are playing poorly, with no hope of playoffs. Apparently to these guys, fans should only go when the teams are doing well, and when they don’t, the fans should punish their teams by not showing up. That proves how little these media types know about Minnesota hockey fans. We love our hockey, and we enjoy watching it whenever there’s a game in the area. Unlike baseball, football, or basketball, where a bad game is a total waste of time, in hockey, even a bad game might produce a spectacular play from either side at some point. Besides, we might want to watch the Wild, but we also appreciate watching a team with talented players come in to play against the Wild.
    These are also long-suffering fans. Sure, they want the Wild to make the playoffs every year, because it is an exciting conclusion to the season -- any season. It is a thrill of springtime. And there is frustration when the Wild fail to make the playoffs, even if their competitive play inspires fan support all season. So this season has been special, because the Wild looked like a sure thing to make the playoffs, then they tumbled almost out of the running, before salvaging the eighth and final spot on the last day of the season.
    That meant they had to face the Chicago Blackhawks, the old North Stars favorite rival, and warm memories of the Dino Ciccarelli North Stars tangling with the Al Secord Blackhawks came back to mind. But these are far different teams. The Blackhawks are No. 1 and deservedly so. The Wild are fresh-faced novices when it comes to playoffs, and even though the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter additions have helped the likes of Mikko Koivu, Matt Cullen and Niklas Backstrom immensely, the “kiddie corps” of rookies Brodin, Coyle and Zucker are no longer playing like rookies, but have become hardened veterans before their time, and who can lead the way to victory just as easily as the top guns.
   With all that underlining the series, the Wild went to Chicago and lost a crushing opener that they well should have won. They got the Blackhawks full attention in that game, and Chicago rose up and played a fantastic Game 2, whipping the Wild for a 2-0 lead in games. That brought us all to Game 3, and Xcel Center.
    The return of NHL playoff hockey to Minnesota. “It’s been a long time coming,” said Matt Cullen, who has been playing in the NHL since the Wild started playing, and is a welcome returnee to his home state with this Wild club. “We know how long the people here have been waiting for the playoffs.”
   When Cullen was out with an injury, the Wild floundered through their last couple of weeks. When he came back, he didn’t score, but the Wild won -- just enough to make it. Critics pointed out that he hadn’t scored. They don’t understand. This isn’t baseball, where every player in the lineup gets a turn batting, or four turns. If a hockey player could be guaranteed to have four pucks lined up in the slot, to swing at with full force, there would be a lot more scoring. Then you could complain if somebody went 0-for-4. In hockey, players like Cullen, Parise, Koivu, and Suter can be the best players on the team without ever scoring a point. Their team support-play and their presence makes the team that much better.
    One critic ripped Zach Parise because he’s getting big money and hasn’t scored regularly enough. A couple days later, the same guy ripped Koivu, saying he’s been playing badly because he didn’t have a single point in the first three games. What they overlook is that as Minnesota’s top-line center, Koivu was playing heads-up against Jonathan Toews, Chicago’s captain and one of the best point-producing centermen in the NHL. While Koivu didn’t have a point in the first three games, Toews, also, had not scored a single point in the first three games. We can bet that nobody in Chicago was pointing at him as a flop because he hadn’t scored. He was still a mighty factor every game.
   Game 5 is Thursday night in Chicago. We don’t know who will be in goal, we don’t know if the Blackhawks will finish off the Wild in five games. But we do know the Wild will show up, and that they will play with heart and dedication. And for the true hockey fans of Minnesota, that’s enough.