FACEOFF: 8:40pm Central
TV/RADIO: NBCSN, 87.7 FM
ON THE SKYWAY: Hockey Wilderness
As they did last year, the Hawks find themselves having passed up one chance to strangle the life out of this series in St. Paul but with another to do so in Game 4. This time, however, they have a spikier Wild team to deal with (one that’s already escaped this dungeon this spring) and not quite the doomsday arsenal they once did.
If we go off yesterday’s practice, it would appear that Joel Quenneville is going to hit the blender again and try and spread out his scoring (or watch Sharp’s and Hossa’s usefulness get completely erased by Michal Handzus getting beaten silly by Granlund, Koivu, or Haula. Take your fucking pick). That’s if you believe this wasn’t just subterfuge. Even if he’s serious about putting Ben Smith up top and Kane with Kruger and Saad, you know it won’t last much more than a period if the Hawks aren’t up 3-0 and we’ll go back to what the lines have been this series anyway.
We do know that Nick Leddy will return to the lineup after his benching to prove… something. I suppose a pissed off and determined Leddy could be a good thing, though how much he can improve on already being the team’s possession leader from the back is anyone’s guess. Go be Bobby Orr, Leds.
The big question for the Hawks is what they’ll be facing and how they’ll adjust. In Game 3 they came out clearly expecting a green tidal wave, and what they got was a 1-2-2 trap that they never really tried to counter by simply chipping pucks into corners and beating d-men who were at a standing start to that puck. Instead they tried to carry or pass their way through the neutral zone littered with green meanies, with predictable, negligible results.
It’s no guarantee they’ll get that again, as Mike Yeo has changed the Wild’s approach in all three games. So the first five or ten minutes could be more of the chess match that Game 3 was as both teams try and figure out what the other is doing.
If the Wild are trapping again, then Leddy will be a very nice tool to have as he’s the best one-man trap buster the Hawks have (sorry Duncs, but it’s true). Even just those constant chips, if they don’t produce much, will keep the Wild pinned and force them to go 200-feet and will once again take the crowd out of it. Turnovers in the neutral zone and rushes the other way most certainly won’t.
If the Wild bring the heat from the off, then obviously the forwards are going to have to be available in the defensive zone, one out front and one on the same-side wall, so the Hawks can bypass the two charging forecheckers and at least get a 3-on-3 with speed the other way. But again, we don’t know which approach Minnesota is going to take here.
For the Wild, Matt Moulson is out with an injury (which could explain why you haven’t been able to find him all series, as he wasn’t the swiftest skater when healthy) but demonic hedgehog Matt Cooke returns from his seven-game suspension for his despicable kneeing of Tyson Barrie. He’ll slot where Moulson was in Game 3, flanking Haula and Fontaine and actually giving that line more speed. Which is great, because they were enough of a problem already. Whether Cooke remains unhinged or is cautious knowing all eyes will be on him is hard to say. He’ll make his presence known early in some way, you can be sure. We’re sure Keith is utterly thrilled.
Most of this playoff run, and really most of this calendar year, has seen the Hawks specialize in “just enough.” They’ll do what they have to and no more to win games they need. So to sit here and expect or even call for the full onslaught from the Hawks is probably foolhardy. Expect the Hawks to suss out what the Wild are doing, be defensively tight either way, and they’ll just find the two or three goals they need, probably through some work of individual brilliance (luckily, they have about six guys who can provide that). But this isn’t last year’s Game 4, where a completely in-over-his-head Darcy Kuemper essentially gave them three goals and handed the series over. Ilya Bryzgalov in theory should be the same thing, but the Hawks never gave him a chance to vomit all over himself in Game 3. Expect them to direct a lot more rubber his way and give him every chance to whiff. One bad goal could swing the game and series, and he’s the more likely to give it up.
Onwards to mayhem.