They said what they had to say in front of the cameras. They put on a brave face and talked about the battle and pride in teammates and better days ahead.
But there can’t be one guy in the Wild’s dressing room who honestly feels good in his hockey gut about Minnesota’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Blackhawks on Tuesday night.
A valiant fight? A step forward? That’s no consolation entering another long offseason. Not after this.
Because for the Wild, there was more to be had from Game 6. So much more.
This game was theirs. They owned it, almost from the moment they allowed Kris Versteeg’s fluke goal just 1:58 into the first period. By midway through the opening 20 minutes, they had tilted the ice and settled into Chicago’s end. It was domination. Game 7 beckoned. It was all right there.
And they couldn’t seal the deal.
Outside of Erik Haula, the dynamic rookie who scooted behind the Blackhawks’ inattentive defense and chipped the puck over Corey Crawford’s glove hand to tie the score 1-1 just 2:29 into the second period, this game was all about Minnesota’s missed opportunities. Gloriously botched, 10-bell opportunities.
Mikael Granlund pounced on a Nino Niederreiter rebound from 10 feet out and hit a post. Justin Fontaine was foiled on a breakaway, then generated two more chances off another solo bid only to be robbed by Crawford on both. Mikko Koivu had a clear look at an open net and had his shot blocked. Cody McCormick got off a nasty spin-o-rama on a partial breakaway. Jason Pominville had a sure goal poked away by a desperate Peter Regin.
The list could go on, but no need to belabor the point: You can’t fail to finish that many chances — Grade-A, plump juicy chances — and expect to win.
Not a game like this. Not against the defending Cup champs.
The playoffs are for closers and this team just couldn’t get it done.
Talk of a bright future? Maybe in a month or so. For now, it’s just the one they let get away.
A few quick thoughts on Tuesday’s series clincher for the Hawks, who now await the winner of the series between the Kings and the Ducks in the Western Conference finals:
• Maybe Crawford has played better games. Maybe he’s made better stops at more opportune moments. Or maybe this game will be forgotten because hey, it’s a second-round clincher against a team they were expected to beat, not an upset in the Stanley Cup Finals.
But he put on a superb display on Tuesday night. This was a game that Chicago had no right to be in, let alone to win, but it was one Crawford wasn’t willing to lose. He made 34 stops on the night and thanks to the Blackhawks’ defense-optional approach, he was left alone to account for far too many of them by himself.
This was a goalie win, one that saved his teammates from their own sloppy, disengaged play.
And it was one for Crawford’s naysayers, a group that should be considerably diminished after his performance. Those that remain should know that Crawford is now 6-1, with a .950 save percentage, in potential close-out games.
He doesn’t always look the part, but when it matters he’s clutch.
• Of course Patrick Kane ended it. That’s what players like Kane — like Jonathan Toews — do. Kane is special, someone who can be invisible all night and then … the lethal blow.
Kane almost finished off the Wild at the tail end of the third period when he tested Minnesota goalie Ilya Bryzgalov by crafting a couple of wonderful chances out of speed and guile.
Then Kane did it for real 9:42 into the extra frame, stunning the crowd at Xcel Energy Center. Stunning, yes, but Kane always seems to save his daggers for opposing buildings doesn’t he?
That goal. Good heavens. Who else scores that goal? Crosby? Datsyuk? If there are any others with the mitts to pull off that fake and then go roof-daddy on the backhand, they’re on a very, very short list.
That was a magician’s goal, and if there’s one thing the Wild lack it’s a magician. They’re not likely to add one, either, not with the cap and a draft position that’s about to settle into the 20s for a long time. They’ll have to rely on a rotating cast of heroes. That works for plenty of teams — the Bruins and the Kings have both won championships with offenses by committee — but there will be nights like Tuesday when a committee just won’t get it done.
• There was talk last summer that Mike Yeo was destined for the unemployment line. It came up again midseason when Minnesota lost six straight at the end of December, which put the Wild out of the playoff mix.
But Yeo’s job status probably won’t be an issue any time soon.
Despite his team’s failure, there’s no egg on his face. Minnesota was prepared, motivated and focused. He made savvy in-game adjustments. His defensive scheme held the defending champs to 22 shots or fewer (in regulation, anyway) in five of the six games of the series. He determined how the games were going to be played. And he did it not by playing the Jacques Lemaire hockey that used to define this franchise, but a fast, aggressive, creative style that maximized the talent on hand and put on a great show for some of the best fans in the league. Yeo and his staff can take a bow after this one.
• If this was Bryzgalov’s last game for the Wild, and it almost certainly was, his time in forest green should be remembered fondly. He came in as a spare part at the deadline and stepped up as an emergency replacement down the stretch and again in the second round. He let in a couple of softies along the way, but played his best game with the season on the line. He stoned Patrick Sharp on a breakaway for the third time in this series to preserve the tie in the second period. He twice came up huge on Kane late in the third. There was a stop off the stick of Toews on an odd-man rush in OT. When he finally buckled, it was on a shot that no one in this league stops. There’s no faulting Bryzgalov’s effort.
A couple of weeks ago, it looked like Europe was going to be his best option next season. Now? Another NHL deal should be there for him on July 1.
• The Hawks are half-way to their third Cup since 2010 but it’s hard to like their chances of going any further until they figure out how to take care of business on the road. Chicago was soundly outplayed in all three games in Minnesota, as well as in two of the three in St. Louis during the first round. In the Blackhawks’ losses the team was plagued by weak passing, poor puck protection and sloppy defensive coverage. Maybe the champs are just waiting for a real challenge to raise their game. If that’s the case, they’ll find one in Anaheim or L.A.