Blackhawks drop game 4 to Wild; series tied 2-2

The Blackhawks continued to be stymied by the Wild in Minnesota.

While the Wild's style might not be exciting - choking defense that slows the other team - it's working. The Wild also have some young guns who have been showing why Minnesota made it into the playoffs, and why they'll be challenging things in the Central division in the years to come.

The first goal of the night came from Justin Fontaine, his first goal of the playoffs, to make it 1-0 Wild, 7:24 into the first. It would take most of the first period, but Patrick Sharp got the Blackhawks on the board with 39 seconds left in the first period with a five-hole goal.

Jason Pominville would give the Wild the lead once more just a few minutes into the second; Corey Crawford seemed to lose track of the puck, and Pominville banked it in off Chicago's goalie to make it 2-1.

Less than three minutes later, Michal Handzus would redirect a shot from Brent Seabrook to tie up the game 2-2. The tie would be very short-lived, however, as Nino Niederreiter gave the Wild the lead again just 44 seconds later, making it 3-2.

Through the first half of the game, the Wild suffocated the Blackhawks, limiting them to just 5 SOG in 25 minutes of play. The Blackhawks began showing life after their second goal, but the Wild were still outshooting and outplaying them.

The Blackhawks fourth line guys (Joakim Nordstrom, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Bollig) combined for just 13:19 TOI in the first two periods. Jonathan Toews & Patrick Kane were both just over 15:00 TOI each after 40 minutes, but were pretty much invisible up to that point.

Chicago had a parade of penalties to the penalty box to end the second and start the third. After killing off four penalties, the Blackhawks let in just their fourth PPGA of the post-season to make it 4-2 Wild on a Jared Spurgeon goal; they are 38 for 42 on the PK (.905%), which leads the league for the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, they're also tied with the Los Angeles Kings for second-most times shorthanded (42), behind the Penguins (45).

Three stars:
1) Jared Spurgeon - MN
2) Marco Scandella - MN
3) Matt Cooke - MN

OBSERVATIONS & THOUGHTS

- Michal Rozsival may have played his worst game of the season. He was on the ice for two goals against, including one of which was a direct result of his bad play. Rozsival is having a really rough playoff series, but unlike Nick Leddy, hasn't been benched yet.

- Coach Joel Quenneville's line combo blender has gone from "blend" to "liquify" tonight. After consistently rolling four lines most of the season, the fourth line has seen less and less time; they combined for less time together than Niklas Hjalmarsson (18:23) played. The players can't feel confident when their lines are being constantly mixed up; nor can the fourth line guys meaningfully contribute with an average 6 minutes apiece. The fourth line was the shut-down line for much of the season; but with Andrew Shaw still injured and Ben Smith promoted to higher lines, that line has instead become inconsistent. What changed that Quenneville suddenly lost faith in his season-long functional lines?

- Do the Blackhawks miss Andrew Shaw? Undoubtedly, as the winger providers the "grit" that teams love to talk about. Without him, the Blackhawks don't have a player playing that irritant role like Matt Cooke and Clayton Stoner provide for the Wild. But as hockey players love to say, when a player is out, the other guys in the room need to step up.

- The Blackhawks spent much of the first half skating as if they were afraid of Matt Cooke. While that is understandable, given his reputation and recent suspension, the Blackhawks can't play like they're scared of other teams or their individual players. Chicago isn't known as a "physical" team; they rely on speed and puck possession to command the ice. The Wild have figured out how to cut them off and smother their play; part of that is from the Blackhawks trying to avoid Cooke and Stoner. There are plenty of big, physical guys on the Blackhawks: Bryan Bickell, Brandon Bollig, Brent Seabrook, Jeremey Morin, and when he plays, Sheldon Brookbank. These are guys who made a name for themselves on their physicality; they need to bring it full blast in the playoffs. But they have to be careful to not do bad hits - boarding or injurous hits.

- In tonight's game, all the "fancy stats" (Corsi/Fenwick) pointed to the Wild's obvious dominance of play. So did the regular stats: the Wild went 58% on the dot, had 31 SOG (plus 13 A/B and 13 MS). Despite being vastly outplayed, however, Chicago's hit total remained low - just 7 hits, most of which came early on. The Blackhawks also had just 4 takeaways all night - compared to the Wild's 15. Despite the Wild's strong puck possession, they still outhit the Blackhawks 22-7.

- Although some broadcasters would have you think that hitting is a be-all end-all stat, it's not. However, hitting in hockey serves multiple purposes. The most obvious is separation of player from the puck. But additionally, it's a psychological deterrent. If a team gets hit frequently enough, they start looking over their shoulders when they go into the corners. They become less willing to fight for the puck or to get dirty in front of the net.

And the Blackhawks desperately need to get dirty - not just in getting more physical, but to look for dirty goal chances. The Wild continue to stifle shot opportunities from further out. Ilya Bryzgalov is a very average goalie - he is 2.91 GAA and .866 in 7 games played - but the Blackhawks have managed to make him look very good so far in the past two games of this series. Crash the net, and good things happen; shoot the puck, and look for rebounds.

- For the last couple games, there's been a lot of discussion about how the Blackhawks haven't played their "best" hockey. Tonight's effort was lackluster at best. If they hope to have any chance of extending their Stanley Cup defense, they need to find their "A" game in a hurry. So far, both the Wild and Blackhawks both remain undefeated at home. The Wild obviously need to change that if they want to make it to the Western Conference Final. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks cannot go through the remainder of this series believing that they will make up any road losses at home. No win is ever guaranteed, and the Xcel Center has suddenly become a very difficult road building to play in. The Wild won the regular season series between them; two of their three wins vs Chicago came at the Xcel.

- Related to the previous point: how come the Blackhawks can play terrible defense all game, but once they pull the goalie for the final minute or two of the game, they suddenly become a brick wall in front of their goal? That kind of tight defense needs to exist all game, not just during the desperate attempts to tie up the game. If the Blackhawks simplify their game and focus on playing good hockey, then some of their current issues should correct themselves.