As NBC Analyst Mike Milbury put it, “the drama in this playoff season started before the puck even dropped.” Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom went down in warm-ups and suddenly the night had an entire different feel to it. As I suggested in my series preview, each contest in this series would likely be a dogfight. Game 1 did not disappoint.
It looked innocent enough, Backstrom slid across his crease in warm-ups waving at a shot puck. Next thing, he was on his knees facing away from the shooters in pain. Though there has been no word given on his injury at this point, it appears to have been to his groin or hamstring.
In an instant, Josh Harding had been inserted into Minnesota’s crease to start Game 1 against the President’s Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks. Harding’s playoff experience amounts to a grand total of one appearance, for the duration of one twenty minute period, six years ago. He also appeared in just five games during this regular season, and hadn’t started a game since January 30.
To his credit, Harding was up for the challenge. Neither team came out firing in the first period, but Harding made the saves he needed to make. One would have expected Chicago to be firing pucks towards Harding right from the opening faceoff, but Minnesota did a valiant job keeping Chicago to the perimeter and limiting their chances.
In fact, after more than seven minutes of action, both teams had managed just a single shot on net. Minnesota took advantage of their one shot, as Cal Clutterbuck placed a shot past Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford that I’m sure he’d like to have back. The event was hardly even a scoring chance, but Minnesota will certainly take what they can get in a series where they figure to be serious underdogs.
Despite a lack of offensive chances early on, the two squads made it a point to finish their hits. It felt like one of those football games where each defensive unit was engaged in a battle of field position, and the battlefield in Game 1 was the neutral zone.
The second period remained physical, and a penalty due to Minnesota forward Zach Parise’s lack of effort to avoid skating into Crawford resulted in a powerplay goal by the dangerous Marian Hossa. At the other end of the ice, Crawford remained solid. While he wasn’t tested often, Crawford made some nice saves and limited the opportunities for rebounds.
Halfway through the third period, things finally started to open up at the United Center. Both teams seemed to have a sudden, jolting sense of urgency and traded hits and chances at a furious pace. Harding and Crawford certainly did their parts to keep the game tied at one, but plenty can also be said about each team’s inability to finish. Still, the Wild, in particular, played a solid brand of team defense.
If there’s one thing better than playoff hockey, it’s overtime playoff hockey. Each of these two squads realized what was on the line, and both seemed to develop a more conscious effort to take any and all available shots.
Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya played exceptionally in his nearly 27 minutes on the night. At 7:34 of overtime, however, his high stick on Jason Zucker (the third penalty Zucker drew on the night) put Ryan Suter and the Wild on the powerplay.
Suter played a game-high 41:08 and was seemingly everywhere on the ice in Game 1. He set the tone defensively with four blocked shots, while also controlling the speed of the game on the breakout, and seemed poised to lead his team on the powerplay with a chance to take the opening game. A minute later, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews drew a questionable (see: makeup) call that negated the remainder of Minnesota’s powerplay.
That may have been the turning point in the game. Minnesota survived Chicago’s abbreviated powerplay but the Blackhawks seemed to have found their determination. At 16:35 of the first overtime, Oduya flipped the puck up the ice and Viktor Stalberg centered it to Bryan Bickell, who pulled the puck to his backhand and slid it past Harding.
Harding has no reason to hang his head after his Game 1 performance. His rebound control wasn’t as proficient as his counterpart’s, but he rarely found himself out of position. The unexpected starter had 37 saves on the night.
Chicago really wasn’t at their best. They seemed to lack urgency early on, but still showed they have the depth to give Minnesota fits throughout the series. Minnesota will need to continue to clamp down defensively to keep the scores in this series close, but I still stand by my prediction that the immensely superior Blackhawks will wrap things up in five games.
What did you think of Game 1? Where do you see this series heading? Leave a comment below or tweet me @BostonNumber9 or my team @TMMotS to discuss this series or any of the others. Be sure to check back often to TooManyMenOnTheSite.com for league-wide news and playoff coverage.