ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Patrick Sharp scored two goals for Chicago, and the Blackhawks ratcheted up their defense, putting the Minnesota Wild on the brink of elimination with a 3-0 victory Tuesday night.
Bryan Bickell also scored and Corey Crawford made 25 saves for the Blackhawks, who built a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven matchup.
The Wild had another goalie get hurt when Josh Harding’s injury forced Darcy Kuemper into action after the first intermission. Sharp scored on Chicago’s first shot at the rookie 62 seconds into the second period.
Minnesota, the only one of the 16 NHL playoff teams without a power-play goal this postseason, went scoreless in six man-advantage situations and is 0 for 15 in the series. Game 5 is back in Chicago Thursday night.
While Harding was recovering from a long layoff related to his adjustment to multiple sclerosis, diagnosed last summer, the Wild rode Niklas Backstrom down the stretch. When Backstrom sustained an unspecified injury to his lower body while warming up before Game 1, Harding was sent in.
This time, Harding was hurt after Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews landed on top of him during a collision in the crease. Harding’s legs were straddled around the left post. He got up gingerly, staying in to finish the opening period after shaking his left leg back and forth several times and testing it with a slow skate behind the net. But Harding didn’t return to the bench, and Kuemper was in.
The sixth-round draft pick from 2009, who made only three starts this season, had a tough initiation to the playoffs. Sharp stole an off-target pass by Zach Parise at the Wild blue line, skated the other way with a one-on-one and sent a wrist shot between Kuemper’s pads for a 2-0 lead that deflated the energy in the arena.
Harding stopped five of six shots; Kuemper made 16 saves. He also gave up Bickell’s third goal of the series, in the third period on a high shot that scraped the top of the net.
Ultimately, though, the guy between the pipes wasn’t going to matter much for the Wild the way this game went.
The Blackhawks haven’t been themselves as an offense in this series, save for the 5-2 victory in Game 2, but that’s another testament to their dominance. They’ve got the depth everywhere on the roster to sustain a lagging top line.
Marian Hossa, Toews and Brandon Saad have combined for only one goal, and Toews and Saad don’t even have an assist yet.
But the Wild have had the same problem, and they’re not nearly as equipped to withstand it. Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle have combined for only one goal themselves, and together they’ve posted a minus-14 rating over four games.
The Wild were all over the ice at the start, eliciting roar after roar from the announced crowd of 19,378, even drawing an interference call on Michal Handzus 66 seconds into the game. Those stifling Blackhawks penalty killers swarmed the Wild on their first try, barely allowing any clean attempts, but the Wild had a lot more shooting space and puck possession on their subsequent power plays.
Even with Jason Pominville’s sharp shot back on the point with the first unit, the home team kept misfiring. Whether a one-timer that zipped wide of the net or a slap shot blocked by one of the self-sacrificing Blackhawks, Chicago blocked 20 shots over the first two periods.
And the Wild, in addition to their struggles with shooting accuracy, paid for a couple of sloppy plays. There was Parise’s intercepted pass in the second period. And midway through the opening period, Hossa picked off a pass from Koivu to Parise in the Wild zone. Hossa sent the puck to Handzus, whose slap shot was tipped in by a perfectly positioned Sharp at the edge of the crease.
The fans were all over the officials for some non-calls in the second period, even though the Wild had all that time with an extra skater. With every shot that went wide, the collective groan from the building sounded a bit like a roller coaster whizzing by.
Tired of cheering big hits along the boards, they just wanted a goal — a goal that never came, thanks to the Blackhawks.
Chicago even took consecutive penalties in the third period, essentially giving the Wild a double power play. But they couldn’t get enough pucks close enough to Crawford to break him down like they did in Game 3.
NOTES: Pominville returned from a two-week absence after taking an elbow to the chin from Dustin Brown in a game against Los Angeles. … Sharp has 27 goals in 68 career playoff games, behind only Hossa (37 in 134) on the Blackhawks. … Backstrom appeared on the bench in full gear for the third period.
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