I originally wanted to live blog the Blackhawks Game 5 against the Minnesota Wild but it occurred to me that based upon how the series has played out to date, and given the weight that Game 5 carried coming in, it most likely was going to be a pretty low scoring, tight defensive affair – of which play-by-play written commentary comes up a little empty.  Instead I allowed the forces of nature to take their course and the Hawks emerged victorious, taking a 3-2 series lead in the process.

To begin with I’ve been impressed by the Minnesota Wild in this series.  They’ve come a long way from the happy-to-be-here team that showed up in the 2013 playoffs and promptly got ousted by these Blackhawks this time last year.  Additionally I thought with their having just come off a grueling and emotional series against the Avalanche they were primed to get steamrolled by the defending champs as they began to hit their playoff stride. After the first two games of the series it looked like I was right.

But something didn’t feel quite right after those first two games.  Despite the scoreboard reading 5-2 and 4-1 at the end of these contests, neither score was indicative of how the matches actually played out.  For long stretches of these games the Wild outplayed the Blackhawks and appeared to have figured out how to methodically undermine the foundation that Hawks system was built upon.  It was easy for everyone to write off any concern with the victories in games that didn’t even need to go into overtime.  This had been easy sledding given the recent history of Blackhawks playoff series.  Unfortunately those worries came home to roost as the series moved to Minnesota.

Somewhere on that hour long flight back home, Mike Yeo and the Minnesota coaching staff had unlocked to the secret to slowing down the vaunted Blackhawk offense.  In the next two games the Wild pitched a 4-0 shutout and a 4-2 drubbing while the Hawks were left wondering whether their goal scoring sticks got lost in baggage claim.

The Wild’s formula isn’t all that ingenious at the end of the day.  The Blackhawks have developed some bad habits over the course of this year where the forwards have been leaking out of the defensive zone further and further and the defensemen have been letting them get away with it by making increasingly longer stretch passes to trigger the breakout and even generate quick-strike scoring chances.  All the Wild have done is make the Blackhawks pay for their lazy tactics.  They’ve clogged the neutral zone with well-spaced sticks and skates and have taken those long stretch passes away.  As a result, when a Blackhawks defenseman tries to fire a pass from the faceoff circle in his own end to a winger streaking across the red line on the other side of the ice, the Wild have been stepping in front of the pass and turning a potential Hawks fast break into an odd man rush in the opposite direction.  t’s a modern day neutral zone trap (as made famous by the mid-nineties Devils for slowing down the game to the extent of almost ruining the league).  The Nashville Predators have played a similar system under Barry Trotz since their inception, which this year resulted in the Predators winning 4 of 5 games against the defending champions despite their not even qualifying for the playoffs.  Essentially it’s a smart way to show down those adorning the Indianhead sweaters.

This concept is not particular new or innovative as it’s frankly a rather logical approach to slowing down high octane attacks in most any sport.  The Phoenix Suns of the early 2000s played at a record breaking pace in the regular season but were often derailed when the pace of the playoffs slowed them down and made them mortal.  Similarly the Blackhawks would like nothing more than to turn any game into a foot race where they possesses the puck and trade odd-man rushes when necessary as their core of high end talent is going to produce more than that of their competition on most nights.  The credit here goes to Mike Yeo and the leadership on the Wild – namely Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, & Mikko Koivu – for staying disciplined to their system.  The Blackhawks feed off of the primordial urge of their competitors to get into these shootouts and in doing so the get them to play out of their comfort zones.  The Wild have done an excellent job staying true to their program of clogging the zone and picking their spots to counter attack.

What we saw tonight was the Blackhawks coming back to their core and playing the game the proper way.  They removed the stretch pass from their repertoire and had their forwards stay back in their proper positions, not leaking out to indirectly create an odd man rush for the competition (particularly encouraging was their not regressing back to their cherry-picking default after the Wild took a 1-0 lead in the first period).  Tonight was a clash of good old fashioned discipline and responsibility, where two bodies giving the same level off effort collided and the one with more god given talent and skill won out.

It may have taken a couple of punches to the ego for the Blackhawks to receive the message but the good news is that they appear to have acknowledged & addressed their sloppy tendencies which in the long run will make them a tougher out in the series yet to come.