The Wild didn’t lay down and play dead against Chicago in Game 4 Thursday, but once again, the opportunistic Hawks did just enough to earn a win over Minnesota and sweep their division rivals out of the second round. Chicago has just too many weapons for Minnesota – and most NHL teams – to handle.
The Minnesota Wild were one of the NHL’s better stories for much of the second half of the 2014-15 season. They pulled themselves back from the brink of a coach firing and were the beneficiaries of an incredible and inspiration comeback case in goalie Devan Dubnyk. Unfortunately for them, comeback stories and excellent goaltending can’t win you playoff games against the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, who hammered the Wild with their big guns and their complementary players and held on for a 4-3 win in Game 4 Thursday to sweep Minnesota out of the second round of the playoffs.
Once again, the Wild didn’t roll over and play dead despite entering Thursday’s game trailing 3-0 in their series. To the contrary: they outshot Chicago 29-17 in the final two periods and fired 37 shots at goalie Corey Crawford while limiting the Blackhawks to only 24 shots on Dubnyk. But once again, the opportunistic Hawks did exactly what they needed to do to eke out a win – in this case, get a shorthanded, empty-net goal from Marian Hossa at 16:53 of the third period (yes, you read that correctly). That wound up being the game winner, although at the time it put the visiting team up 4-1 on the Wild. Minnesota would score a power play goal 49 seconds after Hossa scored, and then Nino Niederreiter’s fourth of the playoffs with 1:27 left in regulation made the last few seconds a nailbiter. But in the end, the Blackhawks pulled out the win and are headed to their fifth Western Conference Final in the past seven seasons.
In the end, the Wild had nobody like Patrick Kane, who had a goal and two points in Game 4 to extend his scoring streak to five games and finish the series with four goals and six points. The Wild’s best player, Zach Parise, had a goal and two points in Game 1 of the second round, but the Hawks held him off the scoresheet in their final three games. Similarly, winger Thomas Vanek had a pair of assists in Game 1, but didn’t register a single point in the three games that followed. Center Mikko Koivu had a secondary assist in Game 4 and another helper in Game 1, but didn’t score in second round and finished the playoffs with one goal and five points in 10 games. Those three players will take up more than $20 million in salary cap space for the Wild next season, and GM Chuck Fletcher has some hard questions to ask himself as to whether that group can be in a position to beat a Hawks team they’ll have to beat to make it to the conference final and beyond.
They’ll need to try something different, because the Hawks sure aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. Game 4 got a little hairy for them toward the end, but they were clearly the more talented team and deserve to be four wins away from their third Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2010. And either the Calgary Flames or Anaheim Ducks will soon be at their wits’ end trying to contain them – not just because of players such as Kane and captain Jonathan Toews (whose two assists Thursday gave him 11 points in 10 playoff games this year), but because of key veterans including Hossa (whose goal was his first of these playoffs, and 45th in 180 career playoff games) and Brent Seabrook (who scored Chicago’s first goal of Game 4 and his third of the playoffs). And that’s to say nothing of players such as Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brandon Saad and Brad Richards.
The list goes on, and because of that, the Blackhawks go on, too. The Wild were a nice story, but once again, the Hawks are shaping up to be the story of the NHL playoffs.