ST. PAUL, Minn. —This year was going to be different. The Minnesota Wild had the momentum and the confidence, the speed and the experience, the MVP-candidate in goal and the motivation of past disappointment. A series victory was hardly guaranteed, of course. But this was the year they’d stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Blackhawks, and push them to the limit.
Well, maybe not.
The Hawks might have been inconsistent throughout the season. They might be a little older, and a step slower in some spots. Their No. 1 goalie even spent three games on the bench during the first round. But they’re still the most star-laden, playoff-tested team in the NHL. They still have that big-moment mentality, and that killer instinct.
And now, they’re one win away from a third straight trip to the Western Conference final.
Corey Crawford made 30 saves and Patrick Kane scored for the fourth straight game as the Hawks knocked off the Wild 1-0 on Tuesday night at the Xcel Energy Center. In the process, they took a 3-0 series lead, and snapped their own seven-game losing streak in road Game 3s. The Hawks haven’t held a 3-0 series lead since they swept the San Jose in the 2010 Western Conference final.
The Hawks can close out the series in Game 4 on Thursday.
“It’s nice, but at the same [time], we can’t be complacent or let up,” Crawford said after his fourth career playoff shutout. “That team is going to play even harder next game.”
Maybe. But after a lot of confident talk leading up to and early in the series, this was a backbreaker of a loss — a one-sided affair (the Wild attempted 65 shots, compared with the Hawks’ 41) that they somehow came out on the wrong side of. It was Crawford who locked it down in Games 5 and 6 last season after the Wild rallied from 2-0 down to even the series. And it was Crawford who all but shut the door on them again.
“Crawford, he’s a star against us,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s Brodeur. He’s Roy. He’s everybody against us.”
As expected, the building was buzzing early. A pregame light show shined the phrase “Third Time’s The Charm” on the ice, an optimistic if awkward rallying cry. Less than a minute into the game, fans were already taunting Crawford with “Craw-ford” chants, and the Wild came out strong and aggressive. The Hawks were braced for it, knowing they had to weather the storm.
“We knew they were going to come with a big push,” Kane said.
But Crawford was sharp early, making big stops on Matt Cooke, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter in the opening three minutes, while the Hawks didn’t put a shot on Devan Dubnyk until nearly six minutes had passed. But as they’ve done throughout the series, the Hawks pounced when given an opportunity. With Jared Spurgeon in the penalty box for tripping Bryan Bickell, Kane took a chip on the rush from Andrew Shaw and beat Dubnyk between the legs for a 1-0 lead. It was his sixth goal in nine playoff games since returning a month early from a broken clavicle.
“It’s been awesome playing here in the playoffs,” Kane said. “And I’m just happy to be a part of the team.”
From there, it was just a barrage of missed opportunities for the Wild. In the second period, Crawford made huge stops on Niederreiter (on the doorstep twice) and Mikael Granlund (on a breakaway). The Wild came up empty on countless chances, most notably Jason Pominville missing the net badly, unchecked from point-blank range.
With two minutes left in the period, Thomas Vanek slammed his stick on the Wild bench —a frustration all of his teammates surely shared. Zach Parise had maybe the best chance of all two minutes after slamming his own stick on the boards midway through the third period, but Crawford somehow managed to spot the puck out of the corner of his eye and get his glove on it before it crossed the goal line during a high-traffic scrum.
“It was a bang-bang, hard quick shot in front and just bounced up in the air,” Crawford said. “I kind of lost it for a sec. As a goalie, when that happens, you back up on to your goal line. I just saw it at the last second and pushed it away.”
Parise’s frustration was evident after the game.
“Shoot where he isn’t, and maybe they’ll go in,” he said.
The Wild had one last great chance when the Hawks took a too-many-men penalty, but they failed to get a single shot off. The Hawks played the final eight minutes as if they were still on the penalty kill, and with Crawford doing much of the heavy lifting, held on for the 1-0 win, and the 3-0 series lead.
“We can’t be satisfied with where we’re at,” Kane said. “It’s a good position to be in. Obviously, we’d be very happy if you told us we’d be in this position before the series. We have to keep it going. We know the hardest game is the one to close it out.”
Just maybe not as hard as everybody expected.