ST. PAUL, Minn. — They tried drop passes in transition. They tried threading passes through traffic. They tried slick one-timers and cute maneuvers. In short, the Blackhawks tried playing hockey the way they typically like to play it.
But that’s not hockey the way the Minnesota Wild typically allow.
“It’s about as simply put as you can describe it, but we get in trouble trying to make plays,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said before Friday night’s Game 4 at the XCel Energy Center.
Turns out simply shooting the puck is a pretty important part of winning hockey games.
And the Hawks didn’t do nearly enough of it, particularly early on, in a 4-2 loss to the Wild, which evened the second-round series at 2-2 as the series shifts back to the United Center for Sunday night’s Game 5.
It was a bad night for the Hawks all-around — they didn’t muster much offense, Corey Crawford struggled, and the Hawks defense had a miserable time handling the puck.
Meanwhile, the Wild came out flying, with Matt Cooke — freed from a seven-game suspension — wreaking havoc in the early going, smearing Duncan Keith on his first shift and forcing a Nick Leddy turnover with a hit on his second shift. Then, seven minutes in, he forced a Michal Rozsival turnover that led to Justin Fontaine’s goal, giving the Wild a 1-0 lead.
The Hawks, despite failing to muster nearly any offense at all, managed to tie it at 1-1 with 38.2 seconds left when Patrick Sharp got a step behind the Wild defense and simply flung the puck on net — a good strategy in this one — and beat Ilya Bryzgalov between the legs. It was a soft goal and a big break for the Hawks.
But the Wild didn’t wilt in the second. Jason Pominville banked the puck off Crawford’s right skate from behind the net at 3:51 of the second period to give the Wild a 2-1 lead. Michal Handzus tied it less than three minutes later, deflecting a Brent Seabrook shot from the point — again, throw the puck on net, get some traffic in front, see what happens — past Bryzgalov.
But the Wild again responded, as Nino Niederreiter beat Crawford from the left circle 44 seconds later to make it 3-2 Minnesota.
Jared Spurgeon then roofed a power-play goal 3:47 into the third period with Rozsival in the box for closing his hand on the puck — a fitting capper to a game he’ll want to forget — to give the Wild the insurance goal at 4-2.
Midway through the second period, the Hawks had just six shots on goal. They finally started firing a little more frequently and taking more direct and less fancy paths to the net after that, but Bryzgalov sharpened up after the early softie.
The game was another reminder that this isn’t the same Wild team the Hawks beat in five games last spring. The Wild are 5-0 at home in the playoffs, bringing the Avalanche and Hawks down to their level, allowing an average of 19 shots and one goal per game in their first four home games. In the first three games of this series, the Hawks had just 22, 22 and 19 shots on goal — far below their regular-season average of 33.1 per game. On Friday night, they had 20.
“They’re a fast team, they defend well,” Patrick Sharp said. “They play their system well. Playoff hockey, it’s tough to get to the net. It’s tough to get scoring chances.”
And now they have momentum and confidence as the teams back to Chicago for the all-important Game 5.