Matching the Chicago Blackhawks is a tough task, and the Minnesota Wild weren't going to catch up without more presence and production from their top forwards.
After a couple of quiet games and two sluggish periods, Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and the rest of the Wild's skill-position players came to life.
Granlund scored twice, Parise had a goal and an assist, and Erik Haula jump-started the Wild by scoring early in the third period in a 4-0 victory over the Blackhawks on Tuesday in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series.
"The big guys definitely came through tonight," Wild coach Mike Yeo said.
Ilya Bryzgalov made 19 saves for his first shutout in the playoffs in eight years, and the Blackhawks had their lead whittled to 2-1 with their first loss in 2 1/2 weeks.
"Today is a tremendous team effort," Bryzgalov said. "We play very, very, very nice hockey."
Game 4 is Friday in Minnesota.
The announced attendance of 19,416 was the most in franchise history, but the atmosphere didn't match that until shortly after the second intermission. Pucks were whizzing way wide of the net, and clogged shooting lanes led to plenty of thwarted opportunities for both sides.
"They're probably as tight a team as we're going to play all year," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
Haula finally brought the fans to their feet.
The rookie centre from Finland, once a standout for the University of Minnesota, started the play from the neutral zone and finished in front of the rush for a tap-in of Justin Fontaine's slick pass through the defence. Then less than 3 minutes later, Granlund took a pass from Jason Pominville and went to his backhand to slip a high shot past Corey Crawford's glove for the 2-0 lead.
The crowd began to taunt the goalie with a "Craw-ford! Craw-ford!" chant, and Parise put the exclamation point on the night with a power-play goal, the first in 25 chances for the Wild over their last two playoff series against the Blackhawks. Then Granlund tacked on an empty-netter with 1:17 left.
"We know when we play like we can, we can beat any team in this league, especially here at home," Granlund said.
Crawford stopped only 14 shots for the Blackhawks, who dropped their first two games to St. Louis in the last round before winning four in a row. Since losing to the Blues on April 19, they took the lead in all six games and outscored their opponents 23-9.
Despite outscoring the Wild 9-3 in the first two games of this series, the Blackhawks have not been able to test Bryzgalov much.
"We can't let it frustrate us. We just have to do something about it," captain Jonathan Toews said, adding: "They're a smart defensive team. Give them credit. But it's more about what we're not doing."
The blue liners were in full force early for Blackhawks, who blocked a whopping 25 shots in Game 2, six more than the Wild even sent at the net. Niklas Hjalmarsson bravely took one on the neck Sunday, and while the seventh-year veteran was cleared to play, the Swede wasn't even allowed to talk. Quenneville said before the game he wasn't worried about any communication problems between Hjalmarsson and his teammates.
Had he been able to yell, Hjalmarsson would've been easy to hear for most of the night. For all the noise this crowd made in the last round, the synergy between vocal fan support and a relentless attack by the Wild was largely missing during the first 40 minutes. Yeo said this was the tightest-checking game he'd ever been a part of.
The offence came, eventually. Pominville has only one goal in nine playoff games, but he had two assists in this one. Mikko Koivu didn't make the scoring summary, but Yeo said his captain played a critical part in helping stifle the Blackhawks and their top lines.
None of the Wild's top six forwards scored in the first two games, with Parise and Pominville managing the only assists.
The Wild faced yet another desperate situation after trailing 2-0 in the last round against the Colorado Avalanche.
"It was pretty familiar territory for us. We knew we had to win the game," Parise said.
The Blackhawks scratched defenceman Nick Leddy, his first absence since his rookie season of 2010-11. Quenneville said he wanted Sheldon Brookbank in the lineup for a physical presence.