Trying to keep up with the Chicago Blackhawks would be unwise for the Minnesota Wild.
Running into them over and over and over again, as Game 3 of this Western Conference quarterfinal matchup proved, is probably their best bet.
After a rough-and-tumble effort in an overtime victory, the Wild were bracing for the inevitable pushback from the top-seeded Blackhawks in Game 4 on Tuesday.
"A lot of teams respond well after losses, and that's obviously a tough loss for them. They'll be ready to go," said Minnesota rookie Jason Zucker, who got the winning goal in the 3-2 decision Sunday that cut Chicago's series lead to 2-1.
The Blackhawks acknowledged without prompting they needed to bring more intensity. But whether they're actually focusing on bruising and banging more with the Wild, well, that depended on who was talking after practice on Monday.
"They played like they had to win the game," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, "and we didn't. We wanted to make sure we had more urgency to our game."
Yes, but teams aren't successful in the spring if they change their style too much.
"Sometimes if you're worried about bringing too much physicality and intensity then you're not worried about doing the things we did to score a lot of goals this year," star Patrick Kane said.
Defenseman Brent Seabrook blamed himself for not playing "very physical," the way games usually go in May. But he stopped short of prodding his team to get into a checking challenge with the Wild.
"I don't think we need to give them any kind of response. We have to play our game, and we have to play the way that we know we can play," Seabrook said.
That means staying in the offensive zone and keeping the puck as much as possible and relying on superior depth to wear down the Wild.
"We're a fast team, and we need to use that to our advantage," rookie Brandon Saad said.
The Blackhawks have only one goal, by Marian Hossa, from their first line. Saad and captain Jonathan Toews have been shut out. But in the postseason, games are always tighter. The Wild have only one goal, by Zach Parise, from their top group, too.
Gritty usually trumps pretty.
The Blackhawks are clearly missing the tenacity and playoff touch of center Dave Bolland, who's been practicing but was declared out for Game 4 because of a lingering lower-body injury. Quenneville was even asked whether enforcer Daniel Carcillo would be inserted on the fourth line for some extra energy, much like the Wild did with Stephane Veilleux on Sunday.
"He could play," Quenneville said.
And if not?
"He might not," the coach said, grinning slightly.
Yes, postseason gamesmanship was on full display. Wild coach Mike Yeo, asked if fourth line forward Mike Rupp was hurt, coyly declined to answer whether his absence from practice was for rest or due to injury. One reporter reminded the coach that Rupp played only four shifts, totaling 2:37 of ice time, in Game 3.
"They were hard shifts," Yeo said, deadpanning.
The veteran forward the Wild acquired for more punch for the playoffs, Jason Pominville, hasn't participated in two weeks since taking an elbow to the chin in a game against Los Angeles. Pominville was back at practice Monday, but Yeo left his status vague too.
The 21-year-old Zucker, whose uneven, undisciplined play prompted the Wild to keep him at their AHL affiliate much of the year, was recalled from Houston right before the final regular season game. Aside from 36-year-old center Matt Cullen, Zucker is one of the only forwards the Wild have with the speed to match the Blackhawks. He showed that in Game 1 when his overtime shot hit the crossbar, an inch that's the difference now in the lead of this series.
But after his blind, bad-angle shot got past goalie Corey Crawford in Game 3, Zucker has been more interested in talking about the importance of physical play than his scoring touch or skating ability.
"Obviously that's a big part of our game, so we had to come out strong. We have a lot of guys that hit all night and every night, so we had to keep that going," Zucker said.
The Blackhawks lamented their lack of puck possession in Game 3, and the Wild were quick to point out that their extra effort along the boards and in the corners was the key to them controlling the game. They realized, too, that they're only one-fourth of the way toward finishing an upset of the Stanley Cup favorite Blackhawks. This, after all, is a best of seven.
"Guys are going about their business. That's the nature of the playoffs. You have to put that behind you pretty quick," Cullen said. "You can't be in here running around like an idiot because you won a game. We won one game."
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