Five Things The Wild Must Do To Force Game 7
The task starts Tuesday with Game 6 against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center in this entertaining Western Conference Second Round series (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN, RDS2). Chicago leads the best-of-7 series 3-2 and can book passage to a second straight Western Conference Final with a victory Tuesday, or Thursday in Game 7 if it becomes necessary.
It is a tough position to be in, but one which the Wild is intimately familiar. In the first round, against the Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota dropped the first two games on the road, won the following two home games and then was relegated to the brink of elimination after losing Game 5 on the road. It has been the same path to a do-or-die Game 6 against the Blackhawks.
Can the Wild fashion a Game 6 victory at Xcel Energy Center against the defending Stanley Cup champions to force a winner-take-all Game 7 like they did against the Avalanche?
That question will be answered Tuesday night, but Minnesota's best chance for a positive outcome -- and another Stanley Cup Playoffs game on Thursday -- will only happen if the club accomplishes these five things:
1. Live in the present
The Wild can't think about the enormity of the task which lies ahead and the fact they must beat a team which has won two Stanley Cups since 2010.
Minnesota shouldn't even cling too tightly to recent history and the fact it wiggled out of a similar predicament against the Avalanche two weeks ago. These Blackhawks are not those Avalanche. They are better, deeper and more experienced.
Instead, Minnesota needs to concentrate on winning the first shift and then the shift after that, allowing it to grow into winning one period and the next. If that happens, like it did in Games 3 and 4, Minnesota has the best chance to come out on top.
"The beauty of it is, we have a great opportunity tomorrow," Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "That's the only thing we should be thinking about. We should be real excited about this opportunity, this challenge, and I believe that our guys are."
2. Block the pain
The Wild is hurting right now. The team has played a dozen high-pressure games this postseason. It will be playing their third elimination game in two weeks Tuesday night. Minnesota has absorbed a ton of big hits and dished out just as many.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been pressed into action because Darcy Kuemper was injured in Game 7 of the first round. The Wild's best defenseman, Ryan Suter, plays almost 29 minutes a game, but may be playing with an arm injury after a nasty collision with Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa in Game 3 last Tuesday. Others are trying to hide or play through an assortment of bumps and bruises.
But that is the currency of being successful this time of year. The Wild have to remember that and push through the pain.
"I think it's mental," Suter said. "Every single guy in that locker room, every single guy in their locker room has issues right now. But it's a mental thing, and you have to overcome that if you want to win; that's why it's the hardest trophy to win in the world."
3. Mix and match
There are advantages to playing at home. One of the biggest in the playoffs is having the last line change. It allows the home coach to dictate the matchups, and Yeo and his staff have been masterful at exploiting favorable matchup situations.
The Blackhawks can be a matchup nightmare because of how deep they are up front, but Yeo must find a way to deploy Suter and Mikko Koivu against the line centered by Jonathan Toews as often as humanly possible.
On the other side of the equation, the Wild needs to generate chances against Chicago's third defense pair of Nick Leddy and Sheldon Brookbank, as well as Chicago's fourth line, which has seen limited action for much of the series because of matchup concerns on the part of Joel Quenneville.
4. Shot prevention
Minnesota has been at its best in this series when it limits Chicago to a minimal number of shots. In fact, in the 15 periods of this series, the Blackhawks have only reached double-digit shot totals in two periods; the first period of Game 1 and the series-changing second period in Game 5.
The Wild's sagging, suffocating defense not only protects Bryzgalov, but is frustrating the heck out of some of Chicago's skill players. Chicago may have won Game 5, but there is no escaping the fact Minnesota has been the better team during long stretches of the past three games and has outscored the Blackhawks 9-4 since the start of Game 3.
"We've played well," Suter said. "We've played right with them. That's why it's seven games, and hopefully we get another shot at it."
5. Enjoy the moment
Game 6 is going to be one of the biggest games in the history of the franchise. The atmosphere at Xcel Energy Center will be off the charts, producing an intimidating cauldron of noise that can propel the home team with its energy and intimidate even the most experienced of opponents.
It is a special experience which can only be generated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It has helped the Wild win all five home games they have played this postseason. It can help again and allow the team to play a Game 7 in a building hostile to them if they feed off what their fans bring Tuesday night.
"There's no question that we fed off our fans," Yeo said. "We've asked our players to step their games up as the playoffs have gone on and it seems like our fans have bought right into that too, because every game seems to somehow get a little bit louder, a little bit more emotion in the building. So I'm expecting a lot of the same [Tuesday].
"I'm expecting our group to feed off it again, but at the same time, I think that we've been able to understand that we can't just expect things to go the same way when we're coming home. We went out and we've made it that way. We've pushed the issue. We've forced the issue. We've played aggressive, and that's what we need to make sure we're ready to do [Tuesday]."