Few would argue with the idea that the Wild are a defensive-centric team. When they succeed, it's because they've defended well. When they fail, it's often because they've defended poorly (though lack of scoring also has been problematic). With that in mind, I want to look at what the Wild did last night to succeed against one of the best teams in the league. This is light on statistics, and heavy on my impressions from the game last night.
The Wild succeeded on Tuesday night by doing exactly what they had done against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. The Wild played a defensively sound game, pressuring the puck, moving it aggressively, and keeping their cool. Most important, they made few mistakes. The Wild iced the puck rarely, but cleared it often. I'll admit- because I was out and about, I couldn't see the game- I had to listen on the radio (feel free to curse Wisconsin with me). As I review the game in my head, and think back to the broadcast, the times in which I heard the phrase "unable to clear" used to describe the Wild were very few- only two come to mind.
This isn't to say that Chicago didn't have their chances- they certainly did, and there were a number of times they were close, but either our defense or Ilya came up big. But here's the thing, Wilderness: for every chance the Hawks had on a breakaway or quick rush into our zone, the Wild had one also. Remember Kane's absolutely disgusting(ly good) goal on a breakaway? Haula did that last night- that he got hooked and didn't score is irrelevant. Having breakaways like that force a team to play a little more defensively, and respect the other team's offense a little more.
When the Wild were in their own zone, they didn't give the Blackhawks space. They kept pressure on the puck, and stayed in defensively sound positions. One of the things I love about the radio broadcast for the Wild (over any TV broadcast, but especially NBC's) is that you can tell when a team is setting up a scoring chance, because Bob Kurtz' voice skyrockets in both pitch and volume. I think I could count the number of times this happened while the Blackhawks were in the o-zone on one hand, but two at most. Denying the Blackhaws those scoring chances is vital. The Hawks do not need forty six shots to score a goal.
The final, but very important, defensive aspect of the Wild's game last night was the lack of turnovers. They certainly gave the puck away, but seldom in a situation like those that lead to the final 2 goals in game 1 against Colorado. There was one such turnover towards the end of the game, When Toews ended up with the puck outside the circle, but the Wild defense recovered, and staved off the goal.
The Blackhawks are a very aggressive team in terms of puck possession. Their game is to get the puck, get it into their offensive zone, and keep it there. That's what is always o their minds. That isn't to say they're uncomfortable in their own zone, but they are always looking for that forward pass. If the Wild keep that in mind and keep themselves in position, they can intercept that pass. The Wild accomplished that feat last night a number of times.
Remember the game against Colorado when the Wild went on the power play, didn't score (surprise!) but kept the puck in the zone for about 2 minutes after it was over? There were shifts like that last night. It wasn't as sustained, and again the Wild didn't score, but that kind of possession against the Blackhawks is a sign of a good team. The Wild kept good pressure on the Blackhawks, much like they did with the Avalanche.
One key difference in the Wild's offense in this series compared to the first round is the timing of their attack. Colorado was such a poor possession team that the Wild could usually rely on long stretches of o-zone time. With the Blackhawks, that is almost reversed. The Wild know that there will be times they are trapped in their end, and they cannot panic when that happens. They also know that their time in the offensive zone may well be limited.
It seems as though the Wild were particularly aware of this last night; they guarded their time in the o-zone jealously, keeping the puck in as much as they could. Even when the Hawks cleared, the Wild were able to dump it back in (albeit, the same was true for the Hawks while in the Wild's end).
In the series against the Avalanche, the Wild's offensive puck movement was present, but not stellar. They were able to pile on shot after shot, and didn't need to fling the puck across the zone to do so. With the Blackhawks, if the puck is not moving, it soon will be on it's way towards the Wild's net. Last night, it seemed as though the Wild caught up to the Hawks in terms of speed. Their puck movement in the offensive zone last night was superb. This finally paid off in the third period, in quick succession. Each of the three non-ENG's was the result of stellar puck movement (along with some great finishing).
What Makes the Wild Unique
Here's something unique I've noticed about the Wild compared to both the Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche in these playoffs: the Wild are not a team that generally gets big breakaways. We don't have a Kane who is going to score on a sexy backhander, or an unnamed 18-year-old who is going to turn a defensemen inside out. Haula tried last night, and he may become that person, but he isn't now.
The Wild are a team that relies on each other. Haula doesn't score last night unless Fonzie sets him up. Same story for Suter and Parise. Nino's pass to Granny at the end of the game is, I think, the epitome of this team: they aren't in it for themselves, they are in it for the team. They need to keep relying on each other. Team hockey is the best hockey, and when the Wild trust each other and work together, they play extremely well.
Can the Wild Repeat?
Here's the $1,000,000 question. It won't be easy. The Wild will basically need to play as though every game is an elimination game. Even then, they might simply get out-performed. I said going into this series that I had a good feeling. There are very few players on the Wild right now who are playing poorly. Furthermore, we get Cooke back on Friday. Cooke is an absolute beast on the forecheck, and can really generate pressure when he's on his game. My guess is, he'll be on his game after missing 7 games.
I've seen a lot of guessing about who Cooke will go in for. The prevailing opinions are: McCormick, Fontaine, or Moulson. I'll leave it to Ger's great article the other day to tell you why Moulson has been key to our success. Suffice to say: the offensive pressure I'm talking about? Moulson is a big part of it.
The last thought I'll leave you with, Wilderness, is this: the Wild are not, and will not be in these playoffs, an elite goal-scoring team. This team succeeds in close games, and games that are low scoring. The biggest key, to me, to beating the Blackhawks is in keeping them from scoring. Everyone will need to step up to help out, just like they did last night. Our young guns need to play well, and our veterans need to keep their effort up.