Are the Hawks in their heads? Wild might have bigger hurdle to overcome

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Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo checks to a replay on the scoreboard at the United Center during the third period of the Blackhawks’ 4-1 victory over the Wild on Sunday night in Game 2 of their second-round series at the United Center. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo didn’t just sound confused after the Blackhawks’ 4-1 victory over his team in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series. He was confused.

“We didn’t make those mistakes,” Yeo said of the errors that led to key Hawks goals that broke a scoreless tie in the second period. “I don’t know what team played that game, but it wasn’t us.”

The Wild are far from out of this series, down 2-0 but with three of the next four games at home. But they returned to Minneapolis a little bit on tilt after their best-laid plans were turned to dust by a Hawks team that — so far —is living up to its reputation as a championship team that rises to meet the challenge.

The Wild came in rightfully thinking this was their best chance to finally beat the Hawks, and while they still might do it, the first two games at the United Center had to be a little disconcerting. They’re better than they’ve ever been, but the Hawks’ 4-3 and 4-1 victories were more decisive than the opening games of either of the previous two seasons.

The Wild came in thinking they were closer than ever to the Hawks. After two games it looks like they’re further away. Workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter, a two-time all-star, former Olympian and former Norris Trophy finalist has been burned for goals by 22-year-old Brandon Saad and 36-year-old Marian Hossa already in this series as the Hawks showed off their youth, their depth, the star power and their knack for making big plays.

In their 4-3 victory in Game 1, the average age of the Hawks goal scorers was 23 — Saad (22), Patrick Kane (26), fourth-line center Marcus Kruger (24) and rookie Teuvo Teravainen (20). In Game 2, the Hawks’ vaunted core forced the issue to turn a scoreless game into a 4-1 victory —Hossa started it all by stealing the puck from Suter and feeding Jonathan Toews for a short-handed goal; Kane added two goals and Patrick Sharp had one.

It left Yeo in no mood to fuel the celebration of the Hawks’ veteran core that dominated Game 2.

“I don’t really care about them, to be honest,” Yeo said when asked about the Hawks’ stars stepping up. “I only care about our team right now. They’re a good team and they’re here for a reason. We’re a good team and we’re here for a reason.

“The first game had a different feel to it. [Game 2], like I said, was not us. The good news is this will be the last time we say this in this series. We’re coming home, so we should be excited to play in front of our crowd. But we have to treat it like a Game 7 right now.

“We can draw upon the past. Last year [down 2-0 to the Hawks] we were able to win a couple of games and get back in the series. But we have to make sure we learn from this.”

The Wild are indeed in a similar situation to last season, when they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win 4-0 and 4-2 at Xcel Energy Center to force the Hawks to step on the gas to end the series in six games. Any hockey series can turn on a dime, but it appears the Wild might have an additional mental hurdle to overcome.

“I wouldn’t take it that far,” Toews said when asked if the Hawks might be in their opponent’s head a bit. “We’ve got the momentum. We feel good about our game. [But] it’s still early enough in the series where if you give them any sort of confidence, any sort of energy where if they come out of Game 3 feeling really good about themselves, things can really snowball in the wrong direction.

“So that’s kind of going to be our attitude and our game plan going into these next two games —try not to feed into what’s going to give them life in this series.”

That’s the challenge the Hawks face in Game 3 — taking advantage of their momentum to prevent the Wild from getting back in the series. Even if the Wild were rattled by their losses in Games 1 and 2, it won’t take much to urn that momentum around. It’s hockey, after all.

“I don’t know [about] rattled,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said, straying as far as he could from the notion the Hawks might be in their opponent’s heads. “We expect a dangerous team [in Game 3]. There are a lot of options on their line, a lot of speed in their lineup, back end that’s active — so there’s a lot of ways they can generate [and] defend.

“You still have to have that patient mindset. We think we’re playing well in [Game 2] and it took us a long time to score a goal. That’s got to be the recipe going forward — don’t think you want to outscore them; you want to play the right way and when you get your opportunities, cash in.”

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