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Zulgad: Only question is what took Wild so long to get physical?

by Judd Zulgad, 1500ESPN.com Updated 16 months ago | 1484 reads

Why it took the Minnesota Wild two games to figure out the best approach to beating the Chicago Blackhawks in their first-round playoff series is anyone's guess.

While playoff teams all over the NHL attempted to assert their will against opponents last week, the Wild approached the Blackhawks as if they could skate with them and use their skill against them.

It almost worked in Game 1 as the Blackhawks appeared to be sleep walking for much of the time in a 2-1 victory that ended on Bryan Bickell's goal at 16 minutes, 35 seconds of overtime. Friday, the Wild again convinced themselves they could beat the Blackhawks at their own game and this time the visiting team got exactly what it deserved.

Chicago cruised to a 5-2 victory - it would have been worse if goalie Josh Harding hadn't played well - and the Wild returned home down 2-0 in the series.

The most frustrating thing about Game 2 might have been the end. The Wild wasn't going to win this game and this is where setting a tone for the next game becomes imperative and, most importantly, needless penalties become acceptable.

Don't believe it?

Go back and watch the end of Toronto's loss to Boston in Game 1. The Maple Leafs were outclassed in the game and looked as if they were ripe to be swept in four games. Toronto decided to mix it up as much as possible in the closing minutes of their 4-1 defeat.

On Saturday, the Maple Leafs came out and skated to a 4-2 victory over the Bruins in a game that featured few penalties because Toronto already had made it clear it would control the tempo of how things went.

If you're to believe what came out of the Xcel Energy Center on Sunday, Mike Yeo decided at some point after Game 2 that his team had to get tougher. The Wild coach wanted his players to develop some good old fashioned hatred for the Blackhawks.

There is no question that hatred develops during the course of a postseason series in the NHL, but what's perplexing is why Yeo didn't get the ball rolling on this entering the opener last Tuesday.

Yeo has, and had, to know the only shot the Wild has to make this series competitive is for his team to physically beat up on the Blackhawks.

This is not to say the Wild should take stupid penalties or look to draw unnecessary attention to themselves from officials, but it does mean that when you're the No. 8 seed playing the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, you had better have a strategy that goes beyond trying to beat the top-seeded team by playing its game.

The Wild had a strategy on Sunday afternoon and it worked very well. The Blackhawks are still the better team when they want to be but the Wild applied hits nearly every time they got a chance and it threw the Blackhawks for a loop.

Jason Zucker, who hit the crossbar in overtime of Game 1 in Chicago, didn't miss this time, scoring the winner at 2 minutes, 15 seconds of the extra session off a nice feed from center Matt Cullen for a 3-2 win. Almost as importantly, the Wild outhit the Blackhawks, 34-13.

This means that suddenly we have a series on our hands instead of an expectation that the Wild's season has one game left before it ends.

Zucker's goal made him the hero but he also delivered one of the most important plays of the game and it didn't result in a goal. In the final seconds of the second period, Zucker put a punishing and clean hit on Chicago's Brent Seabrook that sent the defenseman tumbling to the ice. Zucker then had the presence of mind to stand over Seabrook, as if to say, "there's more where that came from."

It was a moment of brilliance.

Seabrook had been trying to take it to Zucker so this was a great way to turn the tables.

One could argue that the Wild shouldn't wake up the Blackhawks but it's too late. Chicago was a wide-awake after an embarrassing effort in Game 1, so now there's no reason not to rub their faces in the fact that they are, at heart, a finesse team that will have few answers for a team that is willing to get physical.

And if the Blackhawks want to get physical on Tuesday in Game 4?

That would be a win for the Wild because the more the Blackhawks run around trying to play that style the more they get away from the style they want to play and were allowed to play last Friday.

Pierre McGuire, who worked between the benches of NBC's broadcast on Sunday, mentioned during the telecast that the Wild's decision to go physical would take a toll on their players. Wingers Cal Clutterbuck (eight) and Devin Setoguchi (seven), for instance, combined for 15 hits.

This very well might be true but what other choice do the Wild have? Even if it does come at a price, it also forces Clutterbuck to play the style he should be playing and it forces the sometimes disengaged Setoguchi to be completely engaged. Being physical in hockey is never a bad thing.

There is something else to keep in mind here.

The Wild and Blackhawks are going to be in the same division next season and even if the Wild loses this series, this could serve as a tone-setter for what a highly-skilled Chicago team is going to get every time it faces Minnesota.

That is sure to result in some true hatred between these teams and future rivals.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. 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.
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