ST. PAUL, Minn. – Players and coaches on both sides have gone out of their way to stress that the Wild are not the same team the Blackhawks handled easily in the first round of the playoffs last season.
The Wild continued to drive home that point, when they topped the Hawks 4-2 in Game 4 of their second-round series Friday night at Xcel Energy Center.
After handling the defending Stanley Cup champions in the two games in Minnesota, the series heads back to Chicago tied 2-2 with Game 5 set for Sunday night at the United Center. A year ago, the Hawks wrapped up the series in five games, but the 2014 version already is guaranteed a return trip here for Game 6.
In what won’t go down as a textbook case of outstanding hockey, the Wild got scores from Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon while Ilya Bryzgalov earned the victory in goal to lift the Wild.
Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzus scored for the Hawks, but it wasn’t enough as goaltender Corey Crawford struggled early, and it cost him with a loss.
The Wild set the pace in the first period and had the Hawks on their heels throughout. The Hawks didn’t record their first shot on goal until Bryzgalov handled Brandon Saad’s wrister 6 minutes, 20 seconds into the game.
The Wild grabbed the lead at 7:24 of the first when Matt Cooke, playing his first game since serving a seven-game suspension, stole the puck from Hawks defenseman Michal Rozsival and fed Fontaine, who scored from the right circle.
As the clock wound down on the first, the Hawks pulled even when Sharp’s shot from the right circle somehow found its way through Bryzgalov’s pads with 39 seconds remaining.
\The Hawks had to feel fortunate to be tied after being out shot 7-4 in the sloppy opening period
The goal was Sharp’s second of the postseason after leading the Hawks with 34 during the regular season.
Crawford’s rough night continued when early in the second Pominville banked a shot from behind the goal off the netminder and into the net to regain the lead.
Again, the Hawks battled back to tie it when Handzus redirected a Brent Seabrook shot from the point past Bryzgalov, who still was settling into position after shoving Handzus from in front of him.
The tie lasted 44 seconds when the Hawks were victimized by a bad line change that opened room for Niederreiter and the winger flipped a shot from the left circle that beat Crawford to the glove side.
Midway through the second, Sharp had an excellent opportunity to even things when he broke in on Bryzgalov all alone but the veteran goalie got his right pad on a backhanded attempt.
Crawford righted himself and was stellar with three big stops during a Wild power play and Bryzgalov came up big on a Marian Hossa blast that had the goalie looking behind him to see if the play had made its way through.
Early in the third, the Wild put things away when Spurgeon took a terrific pass from Mikko Koivu and deposited the puck in the net on the power play.
The Wild continued to keep the Hawks from playing their fast-paced game by slowing things down through the neutral zone, filling the shooting lanes and keeping the visitors hemmed in their own zone with tight forechecking.
“We have to put it in our mind that the rush game is going to be tight,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Just advance as clean and neatly as possible is our first priority. Off that, hopefully we get some directness in the offensive zone and get pucks (and) bodies at the net. That’s about as simply put as you can describe it, but we get in trouble trying to make plays.”