Wild proving they’re more than worthy foe for Blackhawks

Written By BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter Posted: 05/11/2014, 12:39pm
Array Chicago Blackhawks center Michal Handzus (26), of Czech Republic, gets a shot through the legs of Minnesota Wild goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, right, of Russia, to score in front of Wild center Mikael Granlund (64), of Finland, during the second period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

After winning their first playoff series in 11 years in dramatic fashion — a comeback from a 2-0 series deficit and a Game 7 overtime winner against the Colorado Avalanche — the conventional wisdom around the NHL was that the Minnesota Wild were just sort of happy to be here, happy to be taking the next step toward contending, happy to be on the same stage as the defending Stanley Cup champions.

We’ll never know for sure if that was the case. But after two impressive victories against the Blackhawks on their home ice, it’s certainly not the case now. With a 2-0 deficit now a 2-2 deadlock heading into Game 5 on Sunday at the United Center, the upstart Wild are growing more and more confident, and that only makes them more and more dangerous.

‘‘I think you can learn to win,’’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said. ‘‘There’s no question. You don’t have to lose a playoff round to experience that. You learn through the course of the season. You can learn it in the round.’’

As the Wild’s confidence surges, the Hawks’ experience must come into play. The Hawks have been in far worse situations than this. They were down 3-0 to the Vancouver Canucks before coming back to force a Game 7 in 2011, trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 before rallying to win three in a row last spring and fell behind the St. Louis Blues 2-0 in the first round before rattling off four victories this postseason.

The Wild are well aware of what they’re up against, especially with Game 5 in Chicago, where the Hawks are 5-0 in these playoffs.

‘‘It’s a huge game,’’ Wild forward Dany Heatley said. ‘‘But I don’t feel the vibe in here that we’re too confident, we’re too cocky. We know they’re a very good team, and they play well in their rink. We’re going to be prepared for that.’’

Yes, the Hawks are still the favorites to win the series. Yes, they’re back home. Yes, they’ve been here before. But the two games in Minnesota have made it clear that the Wild are no pushovers — and that the Hawks are an imperfect team.

They have yet to muster more than 22 shots on goal against the Wild and have been uncharacteristically sloppy with the puck and careless with penalties. Their lack of reliable depth has been exposed. And coach Joel Quenneville seemed to be trigger-happy with the frequency with which he changed his lines during Game 4, desperately trying to find a combination that could penetrate the Wild’s traplike defense and withstand their suddenly aggressive forecheck.

The Wild looked like the veteran team, aggressive and poised. The Hawks looked like the inexperienced group, hesitant and almost panicky.

It might just be that the Wild play well at home — they’re 5-0, too, having allowed only five goals — and it might go right back to the David-and-Goliath matchup it appeared to be at the start once the scene shifts back to the United Center. Or it might be something far more troubling for the Hawks.

‘‘We are a confident team,’’ Hawks center Michal Handzus said. ‘‘We have the experience to [get] through it. But we know what we need to do. . . . We know we didn’t play as well as we liked, but we’re confident we can turn it around.’’

The Wild say they’re ready for that, so the Hawks better be ready for anything.

‘‘You just have to be so careful that you don’t let yourself feel too good,’’ Yeo said. ‘‘You can’t let your guard down. This is the same team that won the Stanley Cup last year. This is the same team that in Games 1 and 2 had us frustrated and had us looking like we were in a pretty deep hole.’’

It just hasn’t looked like it for the last two games.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus

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