Looks like I sold the Minnesota Wild short.
More to the point, so did the Blackhawks- who, after taking an easy two games to none lead in their best-of-seven second-round series with Minnesota, failed to show up for Games Three and Four, apparently expecting the sight of the mighty Chief on their sweaters alone to terrify the Wild into submission.
It didn't work. As the Hawks slept through the third period of Game Three and all of Game Four, the Wild- a team on the rise, with plenty of character, and a determination and confidence which had already enabled them to upset a superior Colorado Avalanche squad in the first round- outworked and outhustled the lackadaisical Hawks so completely enough that an uninformed observer might well have thought that they were the team that has won two Stanley Cups in the past four years, and the guys wearing the Indian heads the second to last Western Conference seed.
Alas, ever since the 2010 Stanley Cup season, this Blackhawks team- almost certainly the best in franchise history- has had one glaring weakness: a tendency to play down to the level of the opposition. They get lazy when playing teams they ought to beat handily- and, as a result, don't. They get cocky, and end up having to make a supreme effort in order to win at all.
Which they do. That's the saving grace which rescues them from the consequences of their weakness. The Hawks, too, are a team of character (last year's legendary series with Detroit being a case in point) which can fight and scratch and claw with the best of them when their backs are to the wall. Adversity brings out this team's character in much the same way that the prospect of easy success submerges it.
Ask the St. Louis Blues about how the Hawks play with their backs to the wall.
Anyway, the Hawks actually deigned to show up for Game Five last night at the United Center. The result was a hard-fought 2-1 victory (see the video above), a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series, and their rear ends firmly in the driver's seat.
I don't know what will happen in Minnesota Tuesday night when Game Six is played. It's possible that, now aroused and with blood in the water, the Hawks will rise to the occasion and eliminate the Wild then and there. And if not, it's hard for me to imagine their losing a Game Seven at home. They're too much better than the Wild, talent wise. They're also too familiar with what it takes to win a Stanley Cup series, and a team whose character, ferocity, talent, and will makes them all but unbeatable when the chips are down.
But hockey- and especially playoff hockey- is a very psychological game. As I wrote in my post following the Hawks elimination of the Blues, a sense of confidence and the habit of winning (a habit St. Louis has yet to develop, despite the talent on their roster) are as indispensable to playoff success as talent. And the Wild were, in retrospect, well on the way to developing both before this series ever began.
The Blackhawks' decision to take an ill-timed psychological vacation in Games Three and Four only added to the process. The result is that the Wild have the sense that the Stanley Cup champions are beatable, and that determination and maximum effort for the entire sixty minutes of any given game can do the trick.
The Wild are an infinitely more dangerous team now than they were after Game Two. They are a team which, on any night where the Hawks themselves don't put in the maximum effort for all sixty minutes, is fully capable of beating them. And the Hawks had better not forget that again.
Perhaps it's too much to say that Chicago's two-game snooze has created a monster. The character and tenacity of the Wild themselves have played at least as great a role in their emergence as a genuine threat to the Hawk's hopes of becoming the first team in eighteen years to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. But while at this point I would be very surprised if it were not the Blackhawks who move on to Round Three, that outcome is by no means certain. I'm confident, yes- but also a little nervous.
As I hope the Hawks are.
And whatever ends up happening in the final game or two of the second round, what has happened so far bodes very well indeed for the future of the Minnesota Wild. They will not win the Stanley Cup this year. But their time is not far in the future.