The Chicago Blackhawks are now in need of a big home effort to hold serve in their Western Conference second-round series with the Minnesota Wild. The best-of-seven series is even at two games apiece, and it isn't hard to see why.
Quite simply, the Wild put in the hours at Xcel Energy Center. Chicago was outworked by Minnesota in Games 3 and 4.
If Joel Quenneville wants to credit the fan support in St. Paul for the Wild coming out on top in the last two games, that's his prerogative. Quenneville had this to say to CSN Chicago's Tracey Myers following the defeat:
"They fed off the crowd. Those goals we gave up, we lost a lot of energy. They’re good in their building and they check well, so it’s tough to get momentum in here."
Maybe some due should be given to the Minnesota skaters, who limited the Hawks' offensive efficiency and seemed to beat Chicago to the puck more often than not.
It didn't help matters when Quenneville tossed together some peculiar line combinations for Friday night's Game 4. Quenneville put Ben Smith on Jonathan Toews' wing, moved up Marcus Kruger to the middle of the second line and saddled Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa with Michal Hadzus.
To be fair, that line resulted in both Chicago goals. Sharp chased down a pass from Hossa to score with 39 seconds to play in the first, and Handzus redirected a shot in the second period. Both goals were equalizers at the time that they were scored.
As I expected, Quenneville was in full scramble mode with his lines in Game 4, resulting in the Wild holding Chicago to just 20 shots on the evening. This comes off of a Game 3 performance that saw the Blackhawks finish with just 19 shots on goal.
Ilya Bryzgalov made a couple of tough stops Friday, including a pad save on Sharp's breakaway attempt in the second period and two stops of Jeremy Morin in the third. That said, Sharp's goal late in the opening period found its way between his pads. Trouble was, it was just Chicago's fourth shot of the game.
The Hawks need to put more vulcanized rubber into Bryzgalov's life. The Wild have limited Chicago shots on goal in each game of the series. In Minnesota, the pursuit of the puck on the home team's part was too much for the Blackhawks to overcome when shots were at a premium.
Morin got a few minutes of action in the third period with Toews and Bryan Bickell and responded with some decent play. However, Quenneville shortened his bench even further in Game 4, essentially skating with nine forwards.
Brandon Bollig skated less than five minutes. Joakim Nordstrom was on the ice for just 6:30, and Morin played 7:09. If the Hawks came into the series as the deeper club, it hasn't resulted in Quenneville rolling four lines.
Bollig sat out Game 2 last Sunday and probably needs to be in street clothes for Game 4. The fact that he knocked Keith Ballard out of the game with an illegal hit Friday could result in the league taking that decision away from Quenneville.
The boarding of Ballard resulted in only a two-minute minor penalty, but it was clearly a hit in the back, and Bollig had all kinds of time to avoid plastering the Wild defenseman into the glass. It wouldn't come as a surprise to see the NHL review the hit for possible discipline. Either way, a skater who can be used for more than five minutes should be out there on Sunday.
With home ice once again in Game 5, Chicago needs to take advantage of what should be more favorable matchups. Quenneville will have the last line change and will probably try to keep Mikko Koivu away from Toews. The captain, Sharp, Hossa and Patrick Kane combined for eight shots on goal on Friday. That just doesn't cut it.
The Wild dominated Game 4, outshooting the Blackhawks 31-20 and going 34-25 on draws. They were successful in clogging up neutral ice and held what should have been a desperate Chicago attack to just seven shots in the third period.
The Hawks still have home ice in what is now a three-game struggle to reach the Western Conference Final. Quenneville and company still have plenty to say in how the series concludes. That said, the Hawks better have their hard hats on in Game 5.