Wild’s defensive style forces freewheeling Blackhawks to muck it up
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org May 1, 2013 9:10PM
Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Patrick Kane
Best of seven
Updated: June 3, 2013 3:42PM
Of the myriad things Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane can do on the ice — the spin-o-ramas, the seeing-eye passes, the snapping wristers, the sharp-angle snipes — there’s one simple action that almost makes his skin crawl: dumping the puck in the offensive zone. To Kane, that’s akin to giving up a chance to make something great happen.
“Sometimes the best play isn’t really to dump it in and go chase it, go forecheck and hit,” Kane said. “Instead, pull it back and regroup and come back with speed and try to attack that way. Make direct plays. That’s how we want to play; that’s our game.”
Of course, that’s a regular-season mentality. It doesn’t usually work like that in the playoffs. And it certainly won’t work against the Minnesota Wild, not if it plays in Game 2 on Friday the same way it played in Game 1 — diving in front of shots (21 blocked shots) and clogging skating and shooting lanes by collapsing in front of its net.
The Wild plays a defensive style to begin with, but with starting goalie Niklas Backstrom day-to-day with a lower-body injury — and uncertain, at best, for Game 2 — it’s playing even more conservatively to protect backup goalie Josh Harding.
So carrying the puck across the blue line with speed? Making tic-tac-toe passing plays? Playing the high-flying, high-scoring highlight-reel hockey the Hawks are known for? Don’t count on it. The Wild wants to play games that end up 1-0, 2-1 or maybe — gasp — 3-2.
“Doesn’t have to be pretty,” coach Joel Quenneville said Wednesday after the Hawks’ 2-1 overtime victory Tuesday. “If we want to play a pretty game in that type of traffic, it’s going to lead to them having success. So I think we’ve got to play an uglier game and more of a faster game.”
And the Hawks are used to that, too. Counting Game 1, they’re 20-3-5 in one-goal games this season and have yet to lose in overtime while winning six times in sudden death. And eight of the Hawks’ last nine playoff games have gone to overtime.
That’s not just Wild hockey. That’s playoff hockey.
“Those are the tough games that you’ve got to play and that you want to be a part of,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “They’re exciting. It’s a nervous feeling, but it’s exciting. . . . The boys fought hard all year in games like that, and I think that’s prepared us well.”
So while the Hawks prefer to play a more freewheeling offensive style, they’re confident in their ability to muck and grind their way through the Wild defense, as well.
“That has a lot to do with their coaching staff over there and the way they play the game,” winger Patrick Sharp said. “They’re well-disciplined, good in all areas. And chalk it up to playoff hockey. There aren’t going to be too many easy games or easy opportunities out there to score. We feel comfortable playing that style of game. It suits us. We’ve proved we can be successful playing that way. So we know what we’re in for.”
That means the Hawks have to make the most of the few odd-man rushes they generate with their own defensive play. Plays such as Johnny Oduya’s flip pass off the boards that sparked the two-on-one in overtime that led to Bryan Bickell’s winning goal — “Might have been one of the best indirect passes you’ll ever see,” Quenneville said — are one way to create offense against the Wild. The other is to dump and chase and try to create traffic in front of the net.
While it might be more fun to score with pretty passing, third-chance thwack-ins during cluttered goalmouth scrums count just the same on the scoreboard.
“That’s how they’ve played us all season, and we kind of expected that in Game 1,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “I don’t think that’s going to change very much. It’s up to us to keep being as tough as we can on their goaltender, maybe get some more of those second shots and some more traffic in front of him. We’ve just got to keep wearing them down.”