Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, who recorded two goals, seven assists and a plus-minus of minus-7 in 45 games this season, will dress for the first time since March 17 on Tuesday against the Blackhawks.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Keith Ballard and 19,221 other spectators could feel the energy pulsate through their veins as Game 3 against the Avalanche began. It rarely waned, never left.
In the Wild’s come-from-behind, 4-3 series triumph over Colorado in the Stanley Cup Playoffs quarterfinals, a raucous, hockey-crazed Xcel Energy Center crowd made for three gameday environments that rival the loudest and most energetic in the Twin Cities’ beleaguered sports history. Longtime observers say it usurped the atmosphere of the franchise’s first postseason series win more than a decade earlier. Marian Gaborik’s five-goal game didn’t provide quite as rambunctious a scene.
That’s great, said Ballard, who’s expected to suit up for Minnesota’s next Game 3 matchup.
But ultimately, it’s a small comfort.
"If you want to lean on that, that’s fine," said the ninth-year NHL veteran, who will dress for the first time since March 17. "But that doesn’t change the fact that you have to come out and actually do it tonight. You can’t just look back and say ‘we’ve been good at home.’"
Tuesday night, Minnesota’s players will step on the same ice. Same ambience. Same 2-0 hole.
But their past success in dire situations doesn’t alter reality: The Wild must beat the defending Stanley Cup champions four out of five times in order to advance.
A comeback from an identical series disadvantage against an inexperienced group of Avalanche players means little now. So does a 2013-14 home record that improved to 29-10-5 with three Western Conference quarterfinals wins here, including that 1-0 overtime victory in Game 3 in which Minnesota dominated the course of play and outshot Colorado 46-22.
And with the way Chicago has dominated stretches of the current series, its 1-3-1 regular-season mark against the Wild bears even less significance.
"We definitely recognize that," center Kyle Brodziak said. "They’re not gonna get rattled by a whole lot of things. They’ve been through a lot of stuff together as a group, and (the Blackhawks) know how to handle a lot of situations."
Chief among them: climbing out of a 2-0 deficit of their own in the first round against St. Louis, and claiming two of the past four Stanley Cup crowns.
So rather than bank on the favor of outside elements, Minnesota’s focus remains on maximizing the production of a less talented but gritty group that prides itself on endurance.
Having the last change at home will help. Unable to easily exploit matchups, Minnesota has not produced many quality chances. When it has, pucks have sailed wide, and open goalmouths have been missed.
So there’s only so much mixing and matching Wild head coach Mike Yeo can do.
"It’s gonna be a factor, for sure," Yeo said, "but at the same time, this is a deep team.
"If we’re gonna be able to beat these guys, then we’re gonna need everybody able to play against everybody."
To that end, Yeo plans to pair wings Charlie Coyle and Nino Neiderreiter on either side of Mikko Koivu. Each member of that trio stands 6-foot-2 or taller and weighs at least 209 pounds, making for a bulky line expected to generate a stronger forecheck and maintain possession in the Blackhawks’ zone.
Yeo’s also going with Ballard over Nate Prosser — no points and a plus-3 rating in nine playoff games this season — on defense. Ballard, 31, signed with his home-state club this past season but has battled injuries and inefficient play throughout the campaign.
Appearing in 45 games this season, he’s recorded two goals, seven assists and a plus-minus of minus-7.
"He’s been out for a little while, but this is a guy that’s been a very big part of our team," Yeo said of Ballard. "Looking at last game, looking at some of the things that we’ve seen, we’ve had a lot of opportunities to get the puck on the blue line. He’s a guy that can move across the line with his head up, maybe be able to get some of those pucks through."
So rather than watch from the press box as he has for the past month and a half, Ballard will get his first taste of a playoff night in St. Paul from ice level. And while decibel levels are limited in their ability to affect a contest’s outcome, any advantage is a welcome one.
Chicago knows it, too.
"Tough building. It’s gonna be loud," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
Said Yeo: "We’ve got to help provide some of that, too. We’ve got to bring some jam into this game right from the start . . . and make this place erupt."
And thanks to overcoming a six-game midseason losing streak, a crease carousel that’s seen seven different goalies dress or recalling its previous two-game playoff chasm, Minnesota can continue to hang its hat on battling back.
"It can get tiring," said Zach Parise, who had 10 points in the first six games against Colorado but has just one in his past three outings. "You definitely don’t want to make a habit of it, but when you have the ability to do that, it makes you believe that you can come back and pull off wins."
"When our backs have been against the wall," defenseman Ryan Suter said, "we’ve come out swinging."