What happened to that scrappy, feisty, ornery bulldog team of the first round, the Minnesota Wild? Who decided to replace them with passive puppies?
The Wild team that I watched upset the Colorado Avalanche in a seven-game series had some real jam to it. Hit them, they hit you back. Talk some trash to them or their fans, they became Muhammad Ali in return.
The Wild team I’ve watched after two games of the Western Conference semifinals against the Chicago Blackhawks looks like a kowtowed bunch that knows it’s going to lose. And they've done just that through the first two games of the series, by a combined score of 9-3.
Hey, the Wild have the Hawks right where they want ‘em, right? They lost the first two games of the first round to the Avs and took four of the next five, including Game 7 on the road. But this Wild team looks nothing like that Wild team.
Yes, the Blackhawks are stiffer competition than Colorado. They’re the defending Cup champs, with home-ice advantage. They got their top stars (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane) healthy at just the right time, after two blessing-in-disguise late-season injuries. Now they're even getting big contributions from depth guys, like Bryan Bickell and Brandon Saad, who scored two goals in Game 2 for Chicago.
But the Wild show them too much respect.
I’m not necessarily talking about the physical part of the game. Nobody here is calling for the Wild to get dirty to take out some skilled Chicago players, like Matt Cooke did in Game 3 against Colorado. The Wild out-hit the Blackhawks 37-24 in Game 1 and again in Game 2, 32-23.
I’m taking about a general lack of fortitude I’ve noticed from the Wild, especially their top players. Where has Zach Parise been this series? He had some good moments in the first round, but aren’t the highest-paid guys who get all the ice time supposed to get better as the playoffs go along? He had a measly assist in Game 1 and no points and a minus-3 Sunday in Chicago’s 4-1 win.
Parise's terrible first two games haven't gone unnoticed by the Minnesota media either:
Wild's best chances/zone time continue to come from the bottom 2 lines. Waiting on the big guns— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) May 4, 2014
Yeo should have saved post-Game 1 speech for after this terrible period by the #mnwild. Nothing doing offensively, poor execution everywhere— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) May 4, 2014
7 playoff games vs. #blackhawks: Parise 2 points, minus-8; Koivu 0 points, minus-8— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) May 4, 2014
When fourth-liner Cody McCormick is your lone goal scorer in a game, you know it’s probably not a winning day. The top players looked timid, passive, afraid to go to the hard areas. Minnesota had two shots on net in the first period, four in the third. Six shots on goal through 40 minutes? Chicago’s defense isn’t that good.
It boils down to effort, and Minnesota’s top guys looked asleep all day. Mikko Koivu was a passenger the whole game, and so was Jason Pominville (no shots, minus-two). Mikael Granlund? Nothing. Matt Moulson? A no-show.
And let’s not let Ryan Suter off the hook either. Minnesota’s other $98 million man, along with Parise, was a minus-three Sunday, minus-five in the two games. Frankly, he’s been terrible.
The Wild are now 1-6 in their last seven playoff games against Chicago. No shame in losing to the Blackhawks, but there is growing shame at how timid Minnesota looks against them. The disgraced Cooke can came back from suspension in Game 4, but by then maybe this series will theoretically already be over.
Yeo, though, tried to accentuate the positive after another 0-2 start.
Yeo: that game was hanging there. We're a play or two away— Michael Russo (@Russostrib) May 4, 2014
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said all the right things after Game 2:
Q on being up 2-0: "There’s no easy games, there’s no easy series. Never get ahead of yourself, especially in the playoffs." #Blackhawks— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 4, 2014
But Coach Q was just being polite. These first two games were easy ones for the Blackhawks, helped along by an opponent that forgot to pack its grit on the flight from Denver to Chicago.
Can the Wild come back again? Definitely possible, but without any scoring from the top two lines, not at all possible. Especially, with the Wild stuck having to play Ilya Bryzgalov in goal. Even Wild coach Mike Yeo seemed surprised after the game at the lack of energy his team had for Game 2, especially the start.
“To me, one thing that was clear right from the start and I’m surprised we didn’t see more of it last game, but I thought we didn’t have the legs tonight and that was a big factor,” Yeo told reporters. “You could see it in our puck support. You could see it when we get a puck and we weren’t taking two, three strides before we made a play. We were making a lot of stationary plays, wide stance.”
Time to get their skating legs back, or—just like their vanquished victims from Denver a few days before—it'll be time for Wild players to break out the golf clubs.