CHICAGO – The Minnesota Wild got a terrific effort from Josh Harding in a tough spot. Ryan Suter helped Minnesota keep the Blackhawks’ high-powered attack in check, and the Wild still lost Game 1.
The problem for Minnesota is the same one the Hawks presented all season long to the rest of the NHL, and it could become even more important as the series moves forward.
The Hawks are so deep that it’s tough to keep track of everyone.
Take the overtime goal in Tuesday night’s playoff opener, which went to the Hawks’ third line. Or the ice time on the score sheet, which showed a pretty even distribution for the Hawks compared to an astounding 41 minutes for Suter and 34 for fellow Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin.
“Every shift’s critical, and it’s important that you hold up your end of the bargain,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said Wednesday. “Your depth’s going to get challenged and I think we found out all year it was one of the strengths of our team. This year, in the playoffs, I don’t think that’s changed at all, maybe it would even be that much more important.”
Minnesota’s depth was challenged when goalie Niklas Backstrom was scratched with a leg injury after he hurt himself while reaching for a puck as he warmed up for Game 1. Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last summer and played in only five games this season, responded with 35 saves.
“To not expect to play and halfway through warm-ups you find you have to play, to flip that switch, that’s a tough thing,” Suter said. “I thought he did great. That’s a lot of pressure on a guy to come in and perform, and he did. Hopefully, he continues to have great success like he had.”
Backstrom and right wing Jason Pominville are day to day, according to coach Mike Yeo. Pominville missed the last two games of the regular season after he was elbowed in the chin by Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings.
That means Harding could be in the net again for Game 2 on Friday night at the United Center, a week after he replaced an ineffective Backstrom and allowed three goals himself in a 6-1 loss to Edmonton that nearly cost the Wild a playoff spot.
“I was anxious for a lot of reasons to see him have a chance to bounce back,” Yeo said. “He was thrown into a tough situation in that Edmonton game, and if you know Josh, he’s a competitor and I’m sure he was looking for an opportunity to get back in there, too. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting it to happen like that. You’ve got confidence in the guys that are in your room.”
The Hawks rolled to an NHL-best 36-7-5 record this season, winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time in 32 years and raising the expectations for a second championship in four years. Nine players had at least 20 points, helping them to 149 goals – second only to high-scoring Pittsburgh.
Beyond Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, rookie Brandon Saad and speedy Viktor Stalberg all are capable scorers. Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland came up with a handful of big plays this year. Defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson can contribute on both sides of the ice.
Thanks to all that depth, the Hawks kept winning even when injuries arose and forced Quenneville to shuffle the lines a bit. Bolland and goalie Ray Emery, who have been out with lower body injuries, could practice Thursday, but Quenneville was uncertain about their availability for Game 2.
From the stars to the role players, the Hawks have received contributions up and down the roster this season. And they think it could make a difference as the series wears on against the Wild.
“That’s supposed to be one of those advantages we have as a team, that if the game goes late like it did last night, that we still have a lot of energy,” Toews said. “We still have a lot of legs and we can keep going and rely on whoever it is to score that overtime goal. It doesn’t really matter who gets the job done. We’ll find ways to wear teams down.”
The overtime goal in Game 1 went to Bickell, who went to his backhand to slide the puck between Harding’s legs for the score. Defenseman Johnny Oduya helped set up the winning play with a long pass to Stalberg, who found Bickell in the middle of the ice.
That was the very end of Minnesota’s first playoff appearance in five years, but the Wild remain confident.
“What if we score the overtime winner? What’s the story today?” Yeo 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.”