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Updated: January 23rd, 2014 11:44pm
Myers: Wild's gritty defense paves the way for success vs. Blackhawks

Myers: Wild's gritty defense paves the way for success vs. Blackhawks

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com
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ST. PAUL, Minn. – Zach Parise is too young to have memories of his father's NHL career. He has no recollection of J.P. Parise and the hardscrabble Minnesota North Stars, who had countless epic on-ice battles with their archrivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the 1970s.

No matter.

There's a rekindled rivalry brewing and the Minnesota Wild are suddenly taking it up a notch when the high-fliers from the Windy City come blowing into town. These Blackhawks, winners of two Stanley Cups in the past four years, are a scary bunch.

But if you can take an early lead and stifle them with a defensive game, as the Wild did in Thursday's 2-1 win, it works.

"For whatever reason, our game elevates when we play them," said Zach Parise, who returned to the Wild lineup for the first time in a month and helped Minnesota to its third win in four tries versus Chicago this season. "It's a tough team, and I thought we did a good job of containing their top players. Other than (Patrick) Kane getting that one at the end, we did a pretty good job of neutralizing them for the most part."

Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, now 5-2-0 since being recalled from Iowa on Jan. 2, stopped 33 shots and was close to his second career shutout, allowing only a Patrick Kane goal with 31 seconds left and the Blackhawks' goalie on the bench for an extra attacker.

To be sure, the Wild had a few advantages before the puck was dropped. Minnesota was at home and better rested. The Blackhawks had played (and lost) in a shootout the previous night in Detroit, and were starting their backup goalie – although Antti Raanta brought a 12-1-3 record to the mix. Chicago was also without star defenseman Duncan Keith for the first time this season after the man who has recorded 43 assists in 52 games (best among NHL blueliners) came down with an illness.

By the time it was over and the Wild had scored twice early, then held off the hard-charging Blackhawks for the rest of the game, it had become a kind of flashback to the franchise's roots, and the days of Jacques Lemaire's teams playing a clogging style designed solely to frustrate their opponents.

"We didn't give up a ton, but they weren't looking to generate much," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "Our defense was OK, but just like our whole game, I thought it was just OK. I don't think anybody jumped off the table or had a great game tonight."

The Blackhawks' offense comes at you in wave after wave, as it showed in the playoff last season, dispatching the Wild in five games en route to another Stanley Cup parade through the Loop. Minnesota coach Mike Yeo installed a system with multiple layers of defense to counter those multiple offensive weapons.

"I thought that we had good layers to our defense tonight for sure," Yeo said, as the Wild improved to 8-3-0 in their last 11. "I don't want to say they had a tough time, but we forced them to come through another person. And obviously that's a very dangerous team, we have a lot of respect for them, but with that, it's good to play in structure but especially in the first period…I thought we were pursuing and taking away time and space and that was kind of a focal point going into the game. They've got a lot of skill over there and if you're not playing the right way without the puck then you'll be putting yourself in a lot of danger."

Taking the early lead was critical, as the Wild got goals from Jason Pominville and Matt Cooke, and could've potentially had more, in the first 20 minutes.

During a scramble in front Raanta, two Blackhawks were whistled for minor penalties, giving the Wild two full minutes of a 5-on-3 power play. But despite controlling the puck for nearly the entire man advantage and getting a trio of shots on goal, they could not add to the lead.

"We didn't have a good first period," Quenneville said. "When you're down two-nothing that's a huge hole. The only thing we had going was a great kill on a 5-on-3, but we needed to score on that first power play to get us back in the game."

They didn't, and the Wild countered the troubles they'd had earlier in the week in an ugly 4-0 loss in Dallas, staying out of the penalty box save for two minutes.

"They're an extremely talented hockey club with some big threats. We only went to the box once, so we managed to stay out of that string that we've been on the last few games," said Cooke, who now has seven goals. "We didn't give their power play many opportunities and we feel that if with play without giving up time and space, we have the best chance to be successful."

With Mikko Koivu still out of the lineup, the Wild don't have the offensive weapons to go toe-to-toe with Chicago in the scoring department. What they have is a system that keeps them in the game, and three out of the four times they've played this season, it's worked. If they manage to get to the playoffs again, and can get a rematch with Chicago, it could feasibly work over a seven-game series as well.

By that time, it would certainly be no mystery why the Wild's game elevates when the Blackhawks are in town.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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