For the second time in these playoffs, we saw the Minnesota Wild seemingly take control in the third period on the road against a higher-seeded opponent in Game 1.
And again, it was not to be for the Wild, as Patrick Kane realized "I'm better than any of those guys", and scored the go-ahead goal, screaming "Showtime!" after demolishing Jonas Brodin and Ilya Bryzgalov on the play.
Indeed, it was "Showtime!" for the Blackhawks, as they kicked it into gear when it was needed most, scoring again on another Patrick Kane goal, and then getting the empty netter to ice the game with two and a half minutes remaining. The loss over-shadowed the fact that Minnesota actually played a good game against Chicago. They had an absolute barrage in the 2nd period, and out-possessed the Blackhawks all night- even when the score was close.
The message is loud and clear, but bot something we didn't know before: The Blackhawks are just better than Minnesota.
That's not to say Minnesota hasn't improved greatly since their last post-season meeting. They certainly have. Mikael Granlund is now a good, young player. Nino Niederreiter has been a revelation in these playoffs. Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson haven't produced as much on the scoreboard as anyone would like, but they represent good scoring options that the Wild didn't have last season.
But even now? The Wild doesn't have the fire-power to match Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp. The Wild have to grind it out for every single goal, it rarely looks easy for them.
So, when you look at last night's game, last post-season, and the way the two teams stack up in general, you may justifiably ask yourself "Do the Wild even have a chance at this series?"
It's not much, but there is hope in this series. Some of that hope actually comes from last night. The Wild were playing a rested, superior team on the road, and managed to win the possession battle while matching the Blackhawks' goals at 5-on-5 play.
The major issue was special teams. Jonas Brodin took the brunt of that, seeing a great 5v5 night erased by two needless high-sticking penalties that led to the first two goals. Could things have been different had those penalties not happened? Perhaps.
It's also worth noting that while the Wild struggled mightily in the regular season with killing penalties, they did a very good job of it against the Avalanche, leading Round 1 in CF% while short-handed (20%), while killing at an 88% clip. Granted, Tyson Barrie and Matt Duchene were each out for more than half the series, but there were still many of the players who made that Avalanche team the 5th best PP team in the league.
Chicago finished with the 10th-best PP team in the league (19.5% success rate- Avalanche had a 19.8%). Minnesota handled a similar power-play well, and they have a chance to do the same again. It's also worth noting that Chicago finished 19th in killing penalties with an 81.2% rate. Our power-play can be frustrating enough on it's own, so it's good news that they're not going against a team that is especially great at preventing other power-plays from scoring.
So, the Wild are an improved team that showed it is possible for them to win the possession battle, even without getting their match-ups, and their special teams issues appear to be able to be worked around, whether it's by avoiding dumb penalties (the two high-sticks and the too-many-men penalties were all avoidable), or by returning to their Round 1 form on the penalty kill.
So, what needs to happen?
The goaltending is looking like a major Achilles' Heel this playoffs. Kuemper's injury in Game 7 almost cost them that game, and while no one is really slamming Ilya Bryzgalov for last night, he showed neither in Round 1 or last night's game that he's to be relied on to make the big saves necessary for the Wild to win. Either Kuemper needs to come back- and be healthy while doing so- or Bryz needs to be at his best, or this series will be over. Quickly.
Other than that? The Wild needs to keep that possession game going, and eliminate the needless penalties. Easy goals are never going to be the Wild's thing, but as they showed in Round 1, you can't help but score if you get enough chances. The question with that is if they can keep that up against the second-best possession team in the regular season. And it probably won't happen, but with good possession guys like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and Matt Moulson, as well as a solid Top-9, the Wild could be capable of keeping it even enough to not have to rely on excessively fluky scoring percentages.
A lot of things have to break right, but yes, there is a chance we could see Minnesota advance to the Conference Finals.