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Updated: May 1st, 2013 6:00pm
Zulgad: Wild will have to be mentally tough to rebound from loss to Hawks

Zulgad: Wild will have to be mentally tough to rebound from loss to Hawks

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by Judd Zulgad

There was no way the Minnesota Wild should have been able to hang with the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night in Game 1 of their playoff series at United Center.

Early in the day, the Wild got bad news when the decision was made that winger Jason Pominville could not play because of an upper-body injury, or concussion if you elect to cut through the garbage that NHL teams try to feed you when it comes to injuries.

Then as the Wild went through pregame warm-ups, starting goalie Niklas Backstrom went to his knees to make a save and did not get up. A leg injury of some type caused Backstrom to have to be helped to the locker room.

This meant that Josh Harding would be the starter in goal and, in fact, would be the Wild's only available netminder for the game.

Harding hadn't started since Jan. 30 when he was pulled after giving up two goals on four shots to the Blackhawks at the Xcel Energy Center. Shortly thereafter, Harding went on injured reserve as he adjusted to a change in his medication that he is taking because he's battling multiple sclerosis.

Harding's story is an inspirational one, but it was fair to wonder just how he would do against the ultra-talented Blackhawks after yielding three goals on only five shots in relief of Backstrom last Friday in a 6-1 loss to lowly Edmonton.

But Harding looked like a different goalie on Tuesday, stopping 35 of 37 shots, and his teammates did just about everything in their power to make sure he had plenty of support. The Wild blocked 21 shots with defensemen Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon combining for 11 of those. Veteran defenseman Ryan Suter played a staggering 41 minutes, 8 seconds.

And despite this effort, the Wild suffered a 2-1 defeat when Chicago's Bryan Bickell scored the winning goal with 3 minutes, 25 seconds left in the first overtime.

Because Game 2 of the series in Chicago isn't until Friday, the Wild returned to the Twin Cities after the loss. Many of the players were at the Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday, although they will not practice again until Thursday.

It will be interesting to see what the Wild's mindset is as Game 2 draws closer.

Overall, there was a feeling of accomplishment about the Wild's performance on Tuesday. Coach Mike Yeo even had to remind the media that his team did not come out on top.

"We didn't win the game," he said, "so I don't want to paint too positive a picture on it here. We did some good things and our guys battled hard and that's good. But we've got to find a way to come back and be a little better next game."

That's an easy thing to say, but Yeo and his team have to know they played the Blackhawks about as close as possible and still lost. Chicago was the best team in the NHL this season, winning the Presidents' Trophy with 77 points and scoring a league-best 53 more goals than it gave up.

Yeo is going to try to convince his team that there is no reason the Wild can't continue to play the way they did Tuesday, even if Backstrom and Pominville remain sidelined.

But the Wild has to know that the Blackhawks weren't close to playing at their best on Tuesday and that coach Joel Quenneville will have them ready to go Friday.

If that's the case, the highly skilled Blackhawks are likely to come out flying and present a much more difficult challenge from the opening faceoff. It might be at that moment the Wild realizes their best opportunity to surprise Chicago has come and gone and that keeping this series close isn't going to be easy.

The Wild certainly will need more production from their top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. Those three combined for five shots and no points on Tuesday after being matched up against the Blackhawks' line of Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.

The message from Quenneville was this: One of my best lines will shut down your top line, and I'm willing to sacrifice that scoring, because my secondary scoring is superior to yours. He's probably right. 

Perhaps Yeo had taken the temperature of his team by Wednesday afternoon because he was no longer focusing on the fact the Wild had come up short in Game 1.

"What if we score the overtime winner? What's the story today?" he said. "Are they saying what a great job that our top line did and how their top line needs to find more, because 5-on-5 they didn't have much either. And that's one important thing to remember. The difference in the game was we scored one 5-on-5 goal, and they scored one 5-on-5 goal, and they got one power play (goal) and we didn't."

Yeo is right. It was that close on Tuesday.

Can Yeo get his players to believe they can continue to keep the best-of-seven series that close against the top seed in the Western Conference? That becomes the key question the Wild must answer beginning Friday.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd