ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Chicago Blackhawks were beaten the last game in the corners, along the boards and by an overtime goal for the Minnesota Wild.
By hurling their bodies in front of puck after puck, the Blackhawks stopped the Wild’s momentum right where it started.
Patrick Sharp scored two goals and the Blackhawks ratcheted up their defence to put the Wild on the brink of elimination with a 3-0 victory on Tuesday.
“It’s just been a calm, collected confidence we’ve had all year. I think we definitely showed that tonight,” said goalie Corey Crawford, who made 25 saves for his second career playoff shutout. “So many power play situations for them, and we just kept our cool. We didn’t freak out on the refs or lose it on each other. We just stuck with it.”
Bryan Bickell also scored for the Blackhawks, who built a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven matchup. Game 5 is back in Chicago on Thursday night.
“People want to make a big deal of the hits. That’s fine. We’ve won physical games before,” Sharp said. “We’ve won games with our speed and playmaking ability. So whatever the type of game is out there, I feel confident in our guys.”
The Wild had another goalie get hurt when Josh Harding’s injury forced Darcy Kuemper into action after the first intermission. Sharp scored on Chicago’s first shot at the rookie 62 seconds into the second period.
Minnesota, the only one of the 16 NHL playoff teams without a power-play goal this post-season, went scoreless in six such situations (including one 66 seconds into the game and a back-to-back set in the third period) and is 0 for 15 in the series.
“Just being smart in lanes and battling for pucks. That’s been a positive for our team all year,” said Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith, who joined the team right before the game after being with his wife earlier in the day for the birth of their first child.
When Niklas Backstrom was injured warming up before Game 1, Harding was sent in. This time, Harding was hurt after Jonathan Toews landed on top of him during a collision in the crease. Harding’s legs were straddled around the left post. He got up gingerly, staying in to finish the opening period after shaking his left leg back and forth several times and testing it with a slow skate behind the net. But Harding didn’t return to the bench, and Kuemper was in.
Kuemper, who made only three starts this season, had a tough initiation to the playoffs. Sharp stole an off-target pass by Zach Parise at the Wild blue line, skated the other way with a one-on-one and sent a wrist shot between Kuemper’s pads for a 2-0 lead that deflated the energy in the arena.
“I was going to shoot that puck. It didn’t matter who was in net,” Sharp said.
Harding stopped five of six shots; Kuemper made 16 saves. He also gave up Bickell’s third goal of the series, in the third period on a shot that scraped the top of the net. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville had little sympathy, and Wild coach Mike Yeo declined to ask for any.
“I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in the playoffs. You’ve got to predict the unpredictable,” Quenneville said.
Ultimately, though, the guy between the pipes wasn’t going to matter much for the Wild the way this game went.
The Blackhawks haven’t been themselves as an offence in this series, save for the 5-2 victory in Game 2, but that’s another testament to their dominance. They’ve got the depth everywhere on the roster to sustain a lagging top line. Marian Hossa, Toews and Brandon Saad have combined for only one goal, and Toews and Saad don’t even have an assist yet.
But the Wild have had the same problem, and they’re not nearly as equipped to withstand it. Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle have combined for only one goal themselves, and together they’ve posted a minus-14 rating over four games.
“It probably wasn’t the greatest of nights. But I’ll say this: If you know them the way that I do, you’d be really excited to watch them play the next game,” Yeo said.
Even with Jason Pominville’s sharp shot back on the point with the first power play unit, the home team kept misfiring. Whether a one-timer that zipped wide of the net or a slap shot blocked by one of the self-sacrificing Blackhawks, Chicago blocked 20 shots over the first two periods and finished with 26 for the game.
Minnesota attempted 68 shots to Chicago’s 46.
And the Wild, in addition to their struggles with shooting accuracy, paid for a couple of sloppy plays. There was Parise’s intercepted pass in the second period. And midway through the opening period, Hossa picked off a pass from Koivu to Parise in the Wild zone. Hossa sent the puck to Handzus, whose slap shot was tipped in by a perfectly positioned Sharp at the edge of the crease.
NOTES: Keith came right to the arena from the airport. “I might sleep until the next game. I haven’t slept yet, so it will be nice to close my eyes,” he said. … Pominville returned from a two-week absence after taking an elbow to the chin from Dustin Brown in a game against Los Angeles. … Sharp has 27 goals in 68 career playoff games, behind only Hossa (37 in 134) on the Blackhawks. … Backstrom appeared on the bench in full gear for the third period. Yeo said he’d update the goalie situation Wednesday.