Game Time: 8:00PM Central
TV/Radio: CNBC, TSN (Anglo), RDS2 (Franco), 87.7FM The Game
What You Want It To Be: Hockey Wilderness
For the second time in as many playoff years, the Hawks will take the brief trek up to St. Paul and the Xcel Energy center with a two game series lead having successfully held serve on West Madison St. And for the second time in as many years, the Wild and their fans figure to treat tonight as a do-or-die proposition within the context of their season.
Much has been made of the fact that the Wild are “undefeated at home” during the post season, but again, that comes with a large asterisk given that a) three games is a bit of a reach to stake out “undefeated” as a superlative descriptor, and b) they were against Patrick Roy’s Avalanche. That Mike Yeo and his squad defended their rink against a rookie coach not exactly known for his intricate strategies of a team that had all of the defensive positioning of a rescue crew for a Malaysian Airlines flight isn’t an achievement to be lauded, it’s what they were flat out supposed to do. That they did indeed execute that has little to do with what a raucous and difficult atmosphere THE X has become during this playoff run, even if it is slightly moreso than it has been in the past.
But with all of that being said, look for the Wild come out with a ferocious forecheck with the intent of not letting the Hawks have any easy defensive zone exits. It’s also the only one of the two options that can actually use the crowd to their advantage at home, the other being trapping with four or five guys camped in neutral ice. Given the size and speed that Yeo has among his top 6 with Coyle, Parise, Granlund, and Koivu, they do have the tools to get bodies on Hawk defensemen, with Pominville and Moulson as established trigger men given the opportunity to capitalize on turnovers created by a forecheck. The problem is that to this point, among those top 6, only Pominville and Parise have a point in this series, assisting on Clayton Stoner’s game 1 goal. They have not been without opportunities however, and with the last change at home, Yeo will look to optimize his shift starts, likely with Mikko Koivu getting a look at the Kruger and Saad line where Koivu has a distinct size advantage.
Also a part of the matchup game will be if Yeo decides to keep Brodin and Suter split up as he did for much of Game 2, where he could not decide who they faced. With last change at the X, and with a proven track record of grinding his top pair into powder, it would not be surprising at all to see Yeo have Suter and Brodin together as often as possible and take on both the Toews/Hossa units as well as Sharp-Smith-Kane.
Of course, this will all be in front of Ilya Bryzgalov, whose .833 save percentage just isn’t going to cut it. Late in the game the Hawks appeared to be heavily targeting Bryz’s glove, because that’s a place where a lot of goals are scored. While being at home might help ease his workload if the skaters in front of him are put in more favorable positions, the Wild simply need better than that if they have any hope of making this a series, as they aren’t exactly the 2010 Flyers who can get away with garbage goaltending for more than one round.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, Andrew Shaw did not make the trip for tonight’s game, which leaves the same questions regarding the lineup that were present prior to Sunday’s Game 2. Joel Quenneville seems to implicitly trust Joakim Nordstrom’s game despite a limited body of work, so he figures to remain in the lineup in Shaw’s spot. The only question remains on if it’s even possible within the laws of nature to scratch Brandon Bollig for two games in a row, let alone for Jeremy Morin. Morin was on the ice for Minny’s lone goal and his margin for error is non-existent even if it was Handzus’ guy in McCormick who got the clean look, so Bollig drawing back in to do…something is certainly a possibility. It’s not a pleasant one, but it’s a possibility.
The blueline and crease will remain the status quo despite Niklas Hjalmarsson taking a puck in the throat on Sunday and being unable to speak. It’s questionable how much that will actually affect the communication between he and Johnny Oduya, who figure to face the heaviest forecheck this evening. But the two have played together for long enough that it should be a non-issue. Should be.
This game might also serve as a bellwether for Nick Leddy as well, who has gotten far and away the most favorable zone starts among Hawk defensemen, but he’s at least parlayed them into a team-best Corsi share when he’s out there. With Q unable to have carte blanche on where and against whom Leddy skates, it will be imperative for Leddy to use his feet to exit the zone rather than coughing up the puck under pressure.
Unlike their record in Game 5s (Games five?) under Quenneville, the Hawks do not do so well in Game 3. In 14 playoff series, the Hawks have won a Game 3 just four times- in the 2009 Western Conference Final at home against Scum, Byfuglien’s Vancouver hat trick in 2010, the 2010 Western Conference Final at home against San Jose, and at home last series against the Blues. Two of which took overtime and the most recent took one of Corey Crawford’s better games of his career.
Tonight will see the Wild’s absolute best punch to date of either this year or last, particularly in the first period. A calm, businesslike approach to their breakouts will enable the Hawks to keep the Wild forecheck at bay and thus keep the crowd quiet. It will also lead to scoring opportunities at the other end where the message needs to be that anything and everything needs to go at Breezy until he proves he can stop it with consistency.
This is an opportunity for the Hawks to tighten their grip on a series in a manner that this team has not shown much of in the past. Multi-game series leads have evaporated as quickly as in game multi-goal leads this playoff year, and allowing the opposition life is not advisable. Patience and execution on the Hawks’ part will still trump any matchups that Yeo can get. Take care of business. Let’s go Hawks.