ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild used a spirited post-season run to establish themselves as one of the NHL’s up-and-coming teams.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ time is now, and the defending Stanley Cup champions took the Wild’s best shot before ending it with one of their own.
Patrick Kane scored the game-winner at 9:42 of overtime to lift the Blackhawks to a 2-1 victory over the Wild in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals on Tuesday night, eliminating Minnesota in front of its charged-up home fans.
The Wild peppered Chicago goalie Corey Crawford with 35 shots, but Erik Haula’s breakaway in the second period was the only one that got through. It was Minnesota’s first loss in six post-season home games.
Kris Versteeg scored at 1:58 of the first period for Chicago.
After losing in Chicago on Sunday, the Wild came home needing a win to extend the season.
Once again, the Wild were the aggressors from the start, riding a raucous home crowd to an energetic first period.
But Zach Parise missed an open net on a beautiful crossing pass from Mikael Granlund and the Blackhawks took advantage of a goofy bounce on a shot from Versteeg that fluttered up in the air and past Ilya Bryzgalov, who made 25 saves, less than two minutes into the game.
It was the first time in the playoffs that the Wild had trailed at home, and just as they have so many other times this season, they responded.
Haula pounced on a clearing pass from Matt Cooke that took a fortuitous bounce off the boards and beat Crawford high on the glove side to tie the game during an entertaining second period filled with end-to-end, odd-man rushes.
But Jason Pominville, the Wild’s leading goal scorer during the regular season who struggled for most of the playoffs, missed an open net on a rebound chance and Granlund hit the crossbar midway through the third period allowing the Hawks to get the game to overtime.
Then the puck took an awkward bounce off the end boards and trickled right in front, where Kane buried it with a backhand to end the Wild’s season.
It was a tough way for such a promising season to come to a close for the Wild. The team endured injuries to key players, including three goalies, and several slumps that put coach Mike Yeo’s job in jeopardy.
But the Wild stayed the course, picked up Bryzgalov for some crucial late-season goaltending and watched as a bevy of youngsters blossomed before their very eyes.
The Wild have been boasting for the past two years of a fertile farm system that promised to deliver success to the “State of Hockey,” and it started to deliver this season.
Granlund, Haula, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, who was acquired in a trade with the Islanders, all emerged as reliable professionals, or even better.
Granlund started to display the puck wizardry that made him a sensation in Finland and Haula, a former seventh-round draft pick, was the Wild’s best player in the Chicago series.
It all adds up to a bright future for the franchise, giving veterans Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu the kind of support the hard-working core is going to need to go deeper into the playoffs.
Yeo also solidified his standing in the organization after steering the team through such a bumpy regular season and then doing a masterful job of coaching in the playoffs, particularly against Chicago.
Yeo’s game plan helped the Wild stifle the high-flying Blackhawks’ offence, limiting them to fewer than 22 shots on goal in four of the six games.
With Dany Heatley’s $7.5 million salary coming off the books this off-season, the Wild should have room to add a much-needed goal scorer or upgrade their goaltending, but that will provide little consolation in the immediate aftermath of a loss that will sting all summer long.