Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinal between the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks was one of the stranger opening's to a series in recent memory. Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom suffered a lower body injury in the warmups. This forced heavy underdog Minnesota to go without their starting goaltender just minutes before the opening game against the best team during the NHL's regular season.
Then things got weird. The Wild played really well to start. All of a sudden, 4:48 into the first, Cal Clutterbuck got a goal. The Wild were up 1-0. Josh Harding was looking pretty good. Could this really be happening?
Sadly, for Minnesota, it couldn't. Marian Hossa -- the best player on the ice in Game 1 -- scored early in the second. Harding kept the Wild tied much longer than they probably should have, getting the game to overtime. Late in the fourth period, Brian Bickell's second career playoff overtime winner (Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux have a combined zero of those, by the way) sent the denizens of the United Center home happy.
The two teams meet again in Chicago on Friday night. You have to think Chicago wants to make things a little more convincing in Game 2. You can say with certainty that neither team was thrilled with how they played on Tuesday, so it'll be interesting to see what adjustments are made.
1. Can Minnesota (and Josh Harding) keep giving themselves a puncher's chance?
Josh Harding becomes the story of this first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs if the Wild can even win one game while he's in the cage. What he did in Game 1 -- stop 35 shots and nearly help his team beat the Chicago Blackhawks on the road -- was a small act of heroism on his part. If he plays as well as he did in Game 1 for another five or six games, the Wild have a real chance -- even if it's a small one -- in this series if they can find a way to put the puck in the net. You ask your goaltender to give you a chance to win, and Harding has done that.
2. Will Marian Hossa simply take over this series by sheer will?
Hossa was just awesome on Tuesday night. Not only did he score a goal, but he looked dangerous on almost every shift. He's definitely undervalued on most lists of best players in the league, because he plays in Chicago, where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (deservedly) command a good chunk of the spotlight. Hossa, however, just continues to be one of the most enjoyable players to watch in this league. He seems like he could be capable of just taking the Hawks on his back and winning this series.
3. How well will Corey Crawford play, and how well does he have to play?
Corey Crawford made 26 saves Tuesday night, and only 19 in regulation. He didn't play badly, but he was far from the story in this one. With Ray Emery still injured, there's no threat to his current perch of starter. You have to wonder, though, if the Chicago brass wants to see him steal a game before Emery comes back. Even though having two solid goaltenders is a luxury, do you really want to be doing the goalie shuffle in the last two rounds of the playoffs, where Chicago fully expects to be? It'll be interesting to see if he can get in a zone and just shut the Wild down.