Playing with fire? Blackhawks’ vulnerability has Wild ready to pounce

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Minnesota Wild forward Charlie Coyle knows his team is edging closer and closer to overtaking the Blackhawks. The difference between victory and defeat is a matter of effort more than skill.

“Just hard work, that’s all,” Coyle said after the Wild practiced Saturday at the United Center. “When you work hard, you work smart and you eventually get some bounces your way. It’s going to even out.”

We’ll see about that. There’s no question the Wild are a better team and a more serious threat to the Hawks than the previous two years. But the Hawks’ ability to respond to any threat level and their knack for escape can’t be ignored.

The Hawks’ 4-3 victory in Game 1 at the United Center on Friday night — when they built a 3-0 lead in a flash and lost it just as quickly before rookie Teuvo Teravainen’s semi-fluky tie-breaking goal late in the second period ultimately made the difference —exemplified almost everything the Hawks have been about in their glorious seven-season run as Stanley Cup contenders: offensive dominance, depth and versatility, the inability to handle prosperity, the failure to put the hammer down, a fortuitous tie-breaking goal and strong defense and goal-tending when they needed it most. The Hawks have been outscored 24-23 in seven post-season games this year, yet they have won five of them.

It’s a familiar post-season scenario: either the Hawks are playing with fire and due to get burned; or the Wild have a bigger hurdle to clear than they think. Wild coach Mike Yeo’s assertion that “I think we have their attention probably a little more than we have in the past,” perfectly illustrates the state of the series: the Wild have earned the Hawks’ respect, but they’re also getting the proportionate response. In 2013, the Hawks needed Bryan Bickell’s overtime goal to win Game 1 against the Wild; in 2014, the Hawks broke a third-period tie in Game 1 to win 5-2; Friday night’s opener, in which the Hawks protected a one-goal lead throughout the third period, actually was the easiest of the three.

What is it about the Hawks that makes them so resilient in close games? “Number one, it’s skill,” Yeo said. “And it’s the ability to finish on opportunities. You can chalk it up to a bounce or whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, you give them an opportunity and they can capitalize on it.

Yeo still seems to think his team controls its fate against a team that wills itself to victory almost out of habit. “When it comes down to it, it’s a matter of us getting better,” Yeo said, “just being a little more determined in certain situations and limiting a few more of those mistakes that they can capitalize on.”

As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock observed last year against the Hawks, it might not be that simple. “You’re trying to beat their resolve,” Hitchcock said. “You’re not trying to beat their skill. Everybody’s got skill. And it is one hell of a challenge.”

It remains to be seen if the Wild are up to that challenge.

“They’ve won two Cups, so they know what they can do,” Wild defenseman Marco Scandella said of the Hawks. “They have a good team. We just have to bring a lot of speed. We’ve got to be faster next game. It’s definitely one thing we’re going to bring next game that’s going to have an effect.”

Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. The Hawks are like a high-wire act working without a net in the playoffs — always at risk of a calamitous fall. In 24 of their last 27 playoff victories, they’ve had no more than a one-goal lead in the third period, including 19 times when they’ve been tied or were losing. In Game 1 against the Wild, they lost a three-goal lead in 8:09 and didn’t flinch.

“We talk about it,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said when asked if the Hawks are ever concerned about playing with fire. “Sometimes you’re amazed as a player just as much as everybody else watching and you don’t know what’s really going on. But you try to control it as much as you can and not let your emotion get in your way.

“On any given night, any scenario is a possibility to win and you have to kind of lay with that and roll with that. This group is good at doing that.”

Whether the Wild know it or not, that intangible is what they have to beat in this series. The Hawks are vulnerable. But you better bring a little more than extra effort to get the job done.

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