When playoff fire flickers, who stands tallest?

John Gilbert

Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele (55) scored at 19:32 of the firstd period Tuesday night, after a pass from Kyle Connor (81) behind the net.
Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele (55) scored at 19:32 of the firstd period Tuesday night, after a pass from Kyle Connor (81) behind the net.

Through a long regular season, we have followed the Wild’s roller-coaster avoidance and overcoming of injuries to bring us an outstanding year of entertainment. We have become acutely aware of how important the key players are. Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter — those are the keys who make victories happen.

And now we’re in the playoffs, and the names Marcus Foligno, Nate Prosser, Nick Seeler and Daniel Winnick rise to the surface, and become every bit as important as the big names in whatever success the Minnesota Wild can attain.
Long-suffering Minnesota Wild fans walked into Xcel Energy Center Tuesday night -- or gathered around a big-screen TV set somewhere -- to watch Game 4 of the opening-round Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets.  At stake was the pivotal position that a Wild victory would promise a long series — six or seven games — while a Jets victory would send the series back to Winnipeg where a Game 5 ending would be somewhere between possible and likely.

The Jets completely frustrated the Wild offense in Game 4, getting a goal by Mark Scheifele at 19:32 of the first period, then battling the Wild until the final 11 seconds, when Scheifele scored into an empty net for a 2-0 victory and a three games to one hold on the series as it heads back to Winnipeg for Friday’s Game 5. The Wild chances took a hit before Tuesday’s game, when it was disclosed Parise had suffered a fractured sternum in Game 3 and will miss the rest of the playoffs.

Wild fans and good hockey fans understand the dynamics of NHL playoff hockey. Nothing is guaranteed, and parity nowadays means that the No. 8 seed can get hot as easily as the No. 1 seed and go all the way. Look up Nashville a year ago and see how a No. 8 can knock out a No. 1 (Chicago) in four straight and go all the way to the finals.

Every team wants to end their series quickly, and the Jets have pretty much snuck up on the rest of the NHL this season by establishing a powerful team that is big, strong, can score and can overrun foes. This is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and it was the Wild’s luck to wind up with this burly dance partner for the first round.

However, there are no easy teams at this point. More-skilled teams do better over the long haul of the season, but teams that are skilled-enough and tough enough to impose their will are the ones that succeed in a playoff series. 
Minnesota hockey fans who marvel at the skill level of college and high school hockey also understand what happens in the NHL post-season. Unfortunately, fans have to endure the gadfly media types who watch the World Series, the Super Bowl, even the NBA playoffs, and assume the Stanley Cup Playoffs should be the same and follow the same decorum. Play hard, try to succeed, but play nice. Don’t make it messy.

If you were watching Game 1 and Game 2 in Winnipeg, you had to be impressed with the Jets fans, and with the Jets team, which hit the ice with a constant physical attack on the more-skilled Wild, always doing what the true experts say, “finish your checks.” That means an addendum to the wonderful old saying of Philadelphia Flyers late coach Fred Shero, which advised his players: “Take the shortest route to the puck, and arrive in ill-humor.”

The Flyers of Bobby Clark and the Broad Street Bullies earned that nickname, and two Stanley Cups in the early 1970s, by following Shero’s urging to play without compromise. There was no room for passengers on those great Flyers teams, which first beat the nastiest Boston Bruins teams at their own game, intimidating the intimidators.

Those of us who watch and admire great hockey can appreciate that you don’t need to intimidate your opponent to win, but you do need to — at the very least — prove you won’t be intimidated. Herb Brooks’s Gopher teams that won three NCAA championships in a six-year span of the 1970s proved that characteristic by never being intimidated to the point they couldn’t play their style and show their skill.

So now we go back up to Winnipeg and see the Wild come at the Jets pretty well in Game 1. Devan Dubnyk was great in goal, and it was scoreless until the Jets took a 1-0 lead late in the second period on a power-play goal. In the third period, ageless warrior Matt Cullen scored early for a 1-1 tie by one-timing an awkward-angle pass from rookie Jordan Greenway, and Zach Parise scored on a fantastic rink-length play started by Mikko Koivu’s back-to-the-rush outlet pass to Mikhail Granlund, whose goal-mouth set-up was converted by Parise.

It didn’t last, as Patrik Laine tied it a minute later, and the 2-2 tie was undone when Joe Morrow scored from left point for a 3-2 victory. The Jets outshot the Wild 43-22, but Dubnyk held them in.
Game 2 ended differently, as the teams battled through a scorless first period, the Jets gained a 1-0 lead in the second, and then the roof caved in as the Jets scored three straight goals to build a 4-0 lead in a game in which Dubnyk made 44 saves but the Wild was outshot 44-17. Parise broke through the goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck with a power-play goal with only 45 seconds remaing. At that point, the “too little, too late” cliche was more than just appropriate.

But as the Jets built their lead, they also intensified their pounding of the Wild through that third period. Watching from home, I wondered where some of the Wild players had gone. No question, Winnipeg’s checking line did a great job harnessing Eric Staal’s top line. But a few bone-crushing bodychecks from Dustin Byfuglien and some of his muscular cohorts had made big, strong players like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker had all virtually vanished from my big screen. I thought Coyle was the Wild’s best player in Game 1, but he was visibly pulling up before getting to the corner combat zones in Game 2.

The tradition in the NHL is that a team will try to “send a message” at the end of a strong game to set up the team for next game, on the road. The Jets did that, crunching any and every skater in a white jersey. With 10 seconds remaining, there was a battle for the puck deep in the zone along the right boards. A couple of cross-checks and some nasty shoves seemed intended to send the Wild home with their tails where they were right then — between their own legs.

Without question, the less-physical Jets players all were 6 inches taller, taking liberties they ordinarily wouldn’t take to send the Wild home hurting. In response, nobody wants to see Koivu, Parise, Staal or the always-tough Granlund make a physical stand against such abuse. One of those Jets pests, Brandon Taney, was confronted by Daniel Winnik, and when they dropped their gloves, Winnik pounded Taney, winding up on top of him and winning the fight. Other scraps caused a few penalties and misconducts, including the Wild’s Marcus Foligno and Nate Prosser.

Wild center Eric Staal went hard to the net, but Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebbuyck smothered his try for the equalizer.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Wild center Eric Staal went hard to the net, but Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebbuyck smothered his try for the equalizer. Photo credit: John Gilbert

They dropped the puck for the final 10 seconds, and they only got through three of them, when Winnipeg’s Ben Charot, another of the Jets prime antagonists, squared off with Wild defenseman Nick Seeler. Like Prosser, who is from Elk River, Seeler, from Eden Prairie, grew up playing high school and college hockey, but they understand. Seeler pounded Charot, winning another clear TKO.

Winning those fights was not important. Proving they couldn’t be run out of Winnipeg’s rink was extremely important.
The superficial media types talked and wrote about how distasteful that was, that nobody needs such primitive stuff in a sports event. Interestingly, the television broadcasters remarked how much they enjoyed the fact the officials were letting a lot of “incidental contact” go for the sake of the game’s excitement and entertainment. That is often true, if, that is, the physical play is pretty even. But if one team is mostly pounding on the other team, then letting obvious borderline blows go plays clearly into the hands of the aggressor.

In those cases, the team getting beat up has two choices: Go meekly into the night, and maybe throw in the white flag for Game 3 as well, or, make a stand. Seeler, Prosser, Foligno, and Winnik made a stand, not out of temper, not for personal glory, but for the sake of the team.
When the series moved to Minnesota for Sunday night’s game, the crowd was loud behind their Wild, and the Wild came out storming. They gave up the first goal, to ex-Gopher Blake Wheeler, but tied it when Granlund smacked in a wide-left rebound of Koivu’s power-play shot. Late in the opening period, Koivu was stationed in the right circle on another power play and shot wide left, where Parise freed himself to redirect it into the net.

The Wild made it 3-1 when Matt Dumba scored, and after the Jets closed it to 3-2, the game turned on the last four minutes of the middle period, when Staal, Greenway and Foligno scored in a 4-minute span to boost the lead to 6-2. It ended that way.
Reaction by the media was interesting. Some were practically boasting about how the Wild had taken the series over, and others, including those who had ripped the disgusting violence than ended Game 2, came out and claimed that this Game 3 response was far better than that fighting junk. Too bad they are too arrogant to realize that the fantastic Game 3 response was because this time it was the Wild that all played 3 inches taller, partly because they were at home, and partly because the Jets were nowhere near as aggressive at Excel Center.

But mostly, the gratifying performance by the Wild in Game 3 was about 85 percent because of that “disgusting” and “primitive” display by the Wild at the end of Game 2 notified the Jets that there would be push-back, and sent an even clearer message throughout every dressing stall in the Wild dressing room that it was time for everybody to stand up. For themselves, for their teammates, and to pay respect to Freddie Shero’s words to live by.

All of that guaranteed nothing for Game 4. But it there’s life remaining in the Wild this playoff spring, we will celebrate the big guns, but we also will not overlook the importance of Seeler, Prosser, Foligno, Winnik and all the rest on the Wild roster who showed up to help make a stand.