When you are an eighth seed going up against the best team in the Western Conference in the first round of the playoffs, the odds are already stacked against you. Things never got any better for the Minnesota Wild, as their number one goalie, Niklas Backstrom, went down with an injury in the warmup for Game One at the United Center last week. Here we dissect how monumental this goaltending situation has become, since the injury to backup Josh Harding on Tuesday, where Darcy Kuemper was given his first career playoff ice-time.
How better/worse off would the Wild be if Backstrom was never injured?
That question is something most Minnesota fans are asking themselves since their team lost Game Four, giving the Chicago Blackhawks a 3-1 series lead. It is tough to answer, as goalies can hit a real hot streak in the post-season, and look completely different than they did in the regular season, (see Antti Niemi.) Backstrom is undoubtedly the stronger goalie of the two, and would have been more calm in the net when facing the powerhouse Hawks. However, Josh Harding played an amazing 70+ minutes in Game One, where he stopped nearly everything he saw until Bryan Bickell ended it in the first overtime. Most believe that the game would have had the same result if Backstrom appeared in net, with a Blackhawks regulation win even being an option. Backstrom would most likely have kept games Two and Four to a smaller margin then the three goals they both turned out to be, as Harding/Kuemper let in a couple of questionable tallies, notably the Bickell 3-0 goal in Game Four from a terrible angle. There is definitely a better chance the Wild could have had this series tied up at two games each, but stats are no indication of how well a goalie would perform in a playoff environment.
When Josh Harding was injured midway through the Hawks’ Game Four win, it gave Darcy Kuemper his first playoff action in his career. Kuemper started one regular-season match against the Blackhawks, and had a very fine outing, despite the Chicago win. Kuemper let in a Patrick Sharp goal on the first shot he faced, but then settled down and played a solid game, only letting in one more goal despite the multitude of chances the Blackhawks had in the final two periods.
There is not too much more the Wild can expect from Darcy Kuemper at this point. The fact of the matter is that the Wild offense is not getting it done in the other end of the ice. They are the only team that has not recorded a power-play goal in their series, and only managed five shots on six man-advantages in Game Four. When the Blackhawks get the puck, the Wild defense allow them to set up, and get pucks below the goal line, where most of their offensive chances have originated from in this series. They are not making smart neutral zone decisions, and the puck is ending up on the Blackhawks’ sticks, and in the back of the Wild net frequently.
For the Wild to have any chance at getting back in this series, they will need to rely on the top two lines of forwards, and Norris candidate Ryan Suter on defense, to play the big minutes and try to play a solid 60 minutes. The Wild are not as experienced as the playoff-tested Hawks, and it shows on the ice where the Blackhawks are skating at a different level, and playing so much better that it was very apparent in Game Four that the Wild were in over their heads.
The Blackhawks look to advance to the second round on Thursday night, where they return to Chicago. Puck drops at 8:30 PM CT, on NBCSN, and CSN Chicago.
For more Blackhawks conversation, follow us on Twitter: @Blackhawk_Up, and like us on Facebook: Blackhawk Up.