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Zulgad: Forget past failures, a Wild-Blackhawks playoff series would be must-see hockey

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL – The Chicago Blackhawks had lost eight consecutive regular-season games to the Wild entering Wednesday night. That streak came to an end at 3 minutes, 9 seconds of overtime when Jonathan Toews scored a power-play goal to give Chicago a 4-3 victory at Xcel Energy Center.

The result shouldn’t have been a disappointment for the Wild faithful, but rather have caused hope that Minnesota will get an opportunity this spring to end its own losing streak against the Blackhawks.

That streak dates to the 2013, when the Wild dropped their opening-round playoff series to Chicago in five games. The following two seasons, the Wild again were eliminated by the Blackhawks. It took Chicago six games in the second round of the 2014 playoffs to oust Minnesota and only four games the following year.

Any trepidation about the Wild again going against Chicago in the postseason should have come to an end on Wednesday night, upon the realization that a seven-game series between Bruce Boudreau’s Wild and Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawks likely would result in a superb display of hockey.

“I felt an intensity (in this game), but I’m sure if you see when the playoffs occur it will be a little more than what it was,” Boudreau said. “For regular season it was a playoff mentality, if you know what I mean. But it gets ramped up a little more in the playoffs.”

One can only imagine how much fun that might be too watch over an extended period.

No matter how many regular-season games in a row the Wild won against the Blackhawks, the reality is that Minnesota isn’t going to be considered to be an equal with Chicago until it wins a playoff series against Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford.

There was a time that seemed next to impossible. But that’s not the case anymore.

The Blackhawks took a 2-0 lead on Wednesday with fourth-line winger Ryan Hartman scoring midway through the first period and first-line winger Nick Schmaltz beating Darcy Kuemper early in the second.

The Wild pulled within one when defenseman Jared Spurgeon beat Crawford high to the glove side 37 seconds after Schmaltz scored. Zach Parise then tied it by burying a rebound past Crawford at the 7:15 mark. (The goal was not official until a ridiculously long review of six-plus minutes concluded it was inconclusive whether the play was offsides.)

“I think it’s believability that they can come back,” Boudreau said when asked about the Wild’s ability to rally. “We never felt out of it by any stretch. I thought in the second period, usually in the past this year anyway, when we get going like that, we usually end up getting three or four goals right in a row really quickly and we had the opportunities. But when they needed a save they got it.”

Crawford made several outstanding saves as the Wild outshot Chicago 19-10 in the second period. Alex Tuch, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Chris Stewart (on a breakaway) were among the Wild players who were unable to put scoring opportunities past Crawford, who finished with 35 saves.

The Blackhawks took a 3-2 lead late in the second period on a goal by Richard Panik, but Haula tied the score late in the third after the Blackhawks had gone into a defensive mode for much of the period.

The Wild had the first great chance of overtime as Mikko Koivu fed Mikael Granlund in front with a perfect pass only to have Crawford make another great stop. Suter then had a partially botched breakaway attempt stopped by Crawford before the defenseman was called for a holding penalty on Marian Hossa that gave Chicago the power play that won the game.

Despite the loss, the Wild still got a point and remains five points up on Chicago in the Central Division, and Western Conference, despite having two games in hand.

On Tuesday, Kane told Chicago reporters that Wednesday’s game would be Chicago’s “biggest of the year.” That might have been a bit of an overstatement, considering the Blackhawks are safely positioned to clinch a playoff spot and winning the Central isn’t really all that important, but it did reflect the fact that one of the NHL’s best teams knows it is no longer dealing with Mike Yeo’s Wild.

“That’s a big compliment for us (coming) from a team like that because you usually look at the Hawks as a measuring stick to see where you are compared to everyone else,” Parise said of Kane’s remark. “It shows we’re playing the right way on most nights. We know there’s still a lot of hockey and a lot of games left so we’ve got to keep improving and make sure we’re peaking at the right time.”

With any luck, the Wild also will get another chance to end its playoff drought against the Blackhawks this spring.


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