ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild have turned their home ice into a deafening, discouraging place for opponents to play in the playoffs.
For the second straight game, they dominated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Jason Pominville scored in the second period off the back of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford’s skate, and the Wild beat the Blackhawks 4-2 on Friday night to even their Western Conference semifinal at two games apiece.
“It’s been fun to play here. I don’t know what it is, but we have to find a way to bring that on the road as well,” said Jared Spurgeon, whose third-period goal gave the Wild a cushion for the final stretch while the fans cheered and chanted louder and louder.
“They play hard in their building, and they’re good in their building, and they check well so it’s tough to get momentum in here,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
Matt Cooke returned from his seven-game kneeing suspension to give the Wild a jolt, assisting on Justin Fontaine’s opening goal, and Nino Niederreiter also scored.
“I think I should have fresh legs. I have to go out there and lead the way. Hopefully my energy is contagious,” Cooke said.
Yes, it was. Cooke had a team-high five hits — the Blackhawks were only credited with seven — to help the Wild hold an intensity advantage from start to finish.
“He brings a physical presence,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “You never know what he’s going to do, so you’ve got to be aware of him out there.”
Crawford made 27 saves, but he gave up four goals for the second straight game.
“We’ve just got to play the way we can: Move the puck and play with speed and skill, make the right plays at the right time,” Crawford said. “Everyone’s got confidence in everyone else in this room, so we’ve just got to play together.”
Patrick Sharp snapped out of his slump with his second post-season goal and Michal Handzus also scored, but the Blackhawks again found themselves unable to establish a consistent attack against the Wild’s stifling defence.
The teams will return to Chicago for Game 5 on Sunday night and be back in Minnesota for Game 6 on Tuesday night.
Quenneville shuffled up the lines, moving Ben Smith to the first group with captain Jonathan Toews and Bryan Bickell and bringing defenceman Nick Leddy back to the lineup in a search for more speed and flow. The Wild wouldn’t let that happen.
Leading the NHL in takeaways in the playoffs and allowing an average of fewer than 21 shots on goal per game in the series, the Wild improved to 5-0 at home this post-season with a 16-5 goal differential. The franchise playoff record at Xcel Energy Center was a mere 5-10 prior to this year.
Sharp, coming off a 34-goal, 44-assist season, got his first goal of the series. But the Blackhawks managed just 20 shots on Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov after stressing the importance of testing him more.
Cooke set Fontaine up for a slap shot on a 2-on-1 rush early in the game, and the puck sailed over the glass. Fontaine buried his next chance, a bad-angle attempt from the front edge of the circle that skidded through Michal Rozsival’s legs after Cooke swiped the puck from the defenceman.
After two full periods of trap-filled, tight-checking play in Game 3, the pace in this one was quick from the start. The fans resumed their sing-song jeering of Crawford’s last name from the last game, and the chants grew louder throughout the night.
The buzz in the building was killed for a bit when Sharp, whose struggles prompted a move down to a new third line with Handzus and Marian Hossa, caught defenceman Clayton Stoner stuck in the offensive zone on a turnover by Niederreiter and beat Mikko Koivu to slip a wrister between Bryzgalov’s pads with 38 seconds left before the break.
But the Wild roared right back in the second period with goals by Pominville and Niederreiter to bracket the score by Handzus. Bryzgalov did his part by sticking his pad out to stop Sharp’s breakaway with a thud.
“That was huge for us,” left wing Zach Parise said.
As was all that noise from the crowd.
NOTES: Spurgeon’s goal was just the fourth in 42 opportunities against the Blackhawks in the playoffs, the best penalty-kill percentage in the league. … The Bickell-Toews-Smith line totalled just three shots. … Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, drafted from Louisville the night before, took in his first hockey game.