If you didn't think that the NHL playoffs provided the best drama in all of sports, Tuesday night's amazing action should have been enough to change your mind.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild played an instant classic at the United Center to start the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, and after 60 minutes wasn't enough to determine a victor, Bryan Bickell scored the game-winning goal to send the Madhouse on Madison into a frenzy.
But the story of this game is that the Wild have a very real chance to extend the series to six or seven games and build enough confidence to the point where they believe an upset is possible.
Before the first puck drop, the Wild lost starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who was injured in warm-ups and was unable to start the game. His status for Game 2 is unknown, per Michael Russo of the Minnesota Star-Tribune:
This forced backup Josh Harding to make his first career playoff start. This was also his first start since Jan. 30, when he was pulled after allowing two goals on four shots in seven minutes against the Blackhawks.
Most teams would be negatively affected by losing their No. 1 goalie before a playoff game, but to his credit, Harding was fantastic in Game 1 and gave his teammates plenty of reasons to have confidence in him. The 28-year-old veteran made several key saves (stopped 35 of 37 shots) throughout the game to prevent the league's second-highest scoring offense from taking a lead in regulation.
If the Wild need a blueprint for how to make this series a long one, Game 1 would be a fine example. This was the kind of performance defensively that was a key part of the Wild's 11-4 record in March when the team would grind out games, outwork their opponents and win the puck battles along the boards.
Minnesota must make this a low-scoring series because its offense doesn't have enough depth to compete with the Blackhawks when top-six wingers Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville aren't in the lineup because of injuries. The Wild had the fifth-best win percentage in one-goal games and were 7-3 in games decided by overtime this season, so they are fully capable of winning the kind of defensive battle we saw in Game 1.
The Wild also proved that they are strong enough defensively to frustrate the Blackhawks and make them fight for every quality scoring chance. Star defenseman Ryan Suter played a franchise record 41 minutes, eight seconds of ice time and made a number of important defensive plays to thwart quality scoring chances that the Blackhawks created.
Suter did a fine job shutting down the Blackhawks' top line of Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. This trio had just one point, which was a power-play goal by Hossa in the first period. As a likely Norris Trophy finalist who played at a high level at both ends of the ice in the regular season, Suter should continue to prevent this line from dominating offensively.
As a team, the Wild did a great job defending the Blackhawks in the neutral zone by getting in the passing lanes and not letting Chicago use its speed to enter the attacking zone cleanly. Very rarely have we seen the Blackhawks look so sloppy with their passing this season.
Minnesota also blocked 21 shots to Chicago's seven, led by defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who stopped seven shots from reaching Harding. Spurgeon and Marco Scandella were excellent in this game and gave the Wild a much-needed second strong pairing to assist the Suter-Jonas Brodin duo.
There's no question that the Wild will make it very difficult for the Blackhawks to score goals with their shot-blocking, physical play and the Suter-Brodin pairing being on the ice for 27-plus minutes each game. The Wild have allowed just three goals in their last seven periods versus the Blackhawks.
If Minnesota can keep the score close late in these games, this team does have enough offensive talent with top-six forwards Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Devin Setoguchi to steal a few games and have a chance to upset Chicago.
Corey Crawford is not an elite goaltender, and he let in another soft goal on the first shot he faced in this game. If Minnesota continues to test him early and creates traffic in his crease, pucks will start finding the back of the net. Without a lot of previous postseason success and a backup in Ray Emery who dominated during the regular season with a 17-1 record, a few bad goals and/or games could ruin Crawford's confidence.
Entering this series, the Wild had to be confident about their chances of winning a few games because of the way they played the Blackhawks during the regular season. In the three meetings between these two teams, Minnesota won in a shootout in January then lost 5-3 and 1-0 in the final two matchups.
Following an encouraging Game 1 performance that nearly resulted in a series-opening victory, the Wild will like their chances of taking the next game and the home-ice advantage.
As long as they accomplish some, or all, of the following goals (which is entirely possible), the Wild will have more than a puncher's chance in this series.
- Open the scoring (Minnesota was 18-4-1 when scoring first in regular season)
- Get in the passing lanes and prevent Chicago from making clean breaks out of the defensive zone
- Backstrom or Harding gives the team a chance to win
- Suter and Brodin shut down or limit the effectiveness of the Saad-Toews-Hossa line
- Minnesota wins the physical battles and wears down the Blackhawks
This is going to be a hard-fought series, and if the Blackhawks don't start capitalizing on their scoring chances, they will let the Wild stay alive in this series long enough to knock them out of the playoffs.