We are playing a team that’s won three Stanley Cups in the last six seasons. That team gets up for every important game.
-- Bruce Boudreau after Minnesota’s 5-3 loss to Chicago
When Jonathan Toews scored his first goal in Tuesday night’s game, he went up and smashed the glass behind the net, a gesture that seemed to tell the Minnesota Wild fans sitting directly behind it that their team still has to go through him and the Chicago Blackhawks if they’re going to take the next step this season.
He didn’t know at the time that he would score two more goals that night -- or that Ryan Suter would have a shot go off the crossbar, or that Zach Parise’s tying goal would have counted if he kept his stick below it, for that matter -- but it didn’t matter. Toews is the best player on the ice whenever these two teams play. Patrick Kane is better than any Wild player, too. And, really, what team wouldn’t want Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook manning their blue line?
“That’s why they’ve won the Cup three times,” Zach Parise told the Star Tribune after the game. “It feels like when one’s not going, the other is going.”
Chicago has more skill than the Wild do, but Minnesota has more depth. And as much as it is usually a random player that becomes a hero in the playoffs, Kane and Toews were a handful for the Wild when they were swept two years ago, and nothing has really changed in that regard.
So enjoy this incredible regular season, Wild fans, but don’t lose track of reality. Minnesota goes into their “bye week” knowing that Chicago still stands in their way. A Central Division title only puts a banner in the rafters next to that lonely piece of cloth that represents a title for a division that no longer exists and a number that no player ever wore. Maybe these two teams won’t meet in the playoffs, but it’s hard to validate any run if they don’t -- Chicago is still the primary nemesis, and will be until the Wild can change that.
It’s unfair to compare the rafters of the United Center and the ones in the Xcel Energy Center, since the Blackhawks are an Original Six team and the Wild joined the league in 2000, but the roofs of each building are a stark reminder that Minnesota remains the little brother a team that has won three Stanley Cups since the 2009-10 season. The absence of the Mike Yeo Swoon™ is a nice change of pace this year, but Bruce Boudreau may have just turned the Wild into the San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues or the Washington Capitals -- good regular season teams that choke in the playoffs. They’re not quite the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins or Blackhawks of the hockey world just yet.
Make no mistake, the Wild can play with Chicago. Tuesday’s contest was a game of inches. Parise’s stick is an inch or so lower the game is tied. Same goes for Suter’s shot.
And those are the Wild’s two best players -- or at least the ones making the most money.
“Look back: We deserved to win the game in Chicago,” Boudreau said. “We certainly, I thought, outplayed them in the overtime game that we lost. So they outplayed us [Tuesday]. But what wouldn’t make me think that we couldn’t play with them?”
Sadly it was during that 2009-10 season where the Blackhawks started their streak that the Wild held onto a mostly technical sellout streak, which kept them from tanking in order to get a Kane or Toews. Chicago bottomed out, got some star players, and became a premier team in the NHL. So did Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. The Wild held onto a streak that became fabricated at the end and missed an opportunity to load up in the post-Marian Gaborik era.
So unless Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter or Jason Zucker have another gear, the Wild are stuck where they’re at -- a really great team that doesn’t have a transcendent talent on the roster. They could have drafted Anze Kopitar or Vladimir Tarasenko, but most of the best players in the league are only acquired at the very top of the draft. The Wild simply missed out.
Obviously perennial tanking hasn’t worked out for every team in the league (see: Oilers, Edmonton), and the sale of false hope is wearing thin in the Minnesota market. But when things are heading south, it’s often best to take a nosedive and build for the future. What’s done is done, of course, but the Wild will always be punching up in the Koivu-Parise-Suter era so long as Chicago is the more talented team.
“Tonight was definitely our fault that we lost the game,” Wild forward Nino Niederreiter told the Pioneer Press. “We didn’t win enough one-on-one battles. … It’s definitely not an easy (loss). We wanted to go into the break with a good feeling, so that one is going to hurt a little bit. We know we have to make sure we recharge our batteries and come back stronger.”
It was a good sign, at the very least, that the Hawks referred to the matchup that Minnesota lost in overtime their “game of the year” at that time. But until the Wild can beat Chicago in the playoffs, the rivalry will always be one-sided. That isn’t to say the games aren’t fun -- any time there are a lot of opposing fans in the X it’s a must-see event -- and the Wild are in general a good product, as evidenced by the standing-room only crowds at nearly every game. But for this team to be seen as a contender, they have to do more than win the division this year.
“I think regardless of how big those two points are and where we’re at and how close we are in the standings, I think we always look at that team, especially with the way they’re playing, as a measuring stick right now,” Toews said, gracefully, after the game. “We know that we’ve had some good games against them and at the same time we want to play good against this team on the road and we still kind of think back to last year and how our efforts weren’t quite there so our respect level for what they can do is at an all-time high and we know it’s going to take a heck of an effort to beat them.”
The Wild have to beat Chicago in a seven-game series, and Toews’ first goal is a reminder of how hard that is to do. It wasn’t anything pretty; it was a force-of-will tally, but one that the best player on the ice can turn the game on a dime. Things were even in the first period. Toews’ goal came less than a minute into the second, where the Wild virtually didn’t touch the puck. And then he final two scores sealed the deal, assuring that the best team on the ice that night won the game.
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