ST. PAUL, Minn. — Standing on the Cathedral of St. Paul’s front steps on select spring days the past three years, you don’t need to be down on West Seventh to soak in the spectacle. You can hear it, feel tremors of it in the ground — the buzz of foot and car traffic, car horns responding to verbal chants of "Let’s Go Wild," and "Uptown Funk" pumping from a pregame party zone in front of the Xcel Energy Center.
Down the steps, across John Ireland Boulevard, down Cathedral Hill, left on the pedestrian sidewalk running parallel to College Avenue, down Kellogg and through the X’s front doors, you can close your eyes and smell it. Sizzling pepperoni mixing with the fried scent of miniature donuts. Popcorn. Nachos. If a lucky patron walks by, beer.
Then the lights go down, the ice becomes a giant video projection board, and soon, Hammerfall’s "Fury of the Wild" starts blasting over the sound system. It’s half-circus, half-hockey game, and some late-season surges have made it an annual tradition since 2013.
But what’s just as perennial is Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford and the rest of the Chicago clean-up crew barging in with their thumbtacks to burst the balloon. Thursday night, they also brought brooms — Reebok and Bauer-branded, of course — and swept the entire thing out the door, ushering in summer a little earlier than this hockey-hungry state prefers.
Three years. Three chances. Three failures. All at the hands of the Blackhawks, who continue to remind the 2000 expansion franchise 400 miles to the northwest that heating up and sustaining incandescence are two very different things.
"We’ve got to beat this team," Wild winger Jason Pominville said Thursday night — almost Friday morning thanks to an 8:40 p.m. puck drop — after Chicago’s 4-3, second-round, sweep-clinching win. "Every year, it seems like — the last few years, anyway — we’ve played them. We’ve got to find a way to get to that next level."
During the third four-game skunking in Minnesota’s decade-and-a-half history, the NHL’s hottest team down the regular-season stretch couldn’t solve goalie Corey Crawford, who stopped 124 of 131 shots for a .947 save percentage, including a 1-0 Game 3 shutout Tuesday and a 34-stop performance two days later.
Nor could they handle Wild-killer Kane, who scored almost as many goals in the series (five) as Minnesota (seven). His left-slot wrister off Devan Dubnyk’s side made it 3-1 at 13:20 of the third period Thursday and would’ve been the dagger if not for a pair of late goals from Pominville and Nino Niederreiter as the Wild threw the kitchen sink, Jacuzzi and outdoor pool at Chicago in the final moments.
"He’s pretty shifty," forward Charlie Coyle, who moved back from center to the wing as part of a massive lineup shuffle. "He’s probably one of the best puck-handlers in the league, if not the best."
Jonathan Toews displayed his usual all-around talent. He, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — who scored the first goal Thursday — led a stout defensive effort that kept the Wild from stringing many offensive-zone stay-cations together.
Minnesota never led. Worse, some of its top players continued an alarming trend of disappearing when they’re needed most.
"It’s hard to describe the feeling," coach Mike Yeo said. "Losing sucks."
Zach Parise had a goal and two assists in the series and a plus-minus of -3. Mikko Koivu has two goals in his past 28 playoff games and was a minus-4 in the series. Ryan Suter and Thomas Vanek in this season’s Western Conference semifinals: two assists, minus-5. Pominville: one goal for his only point, minus-3.
Combined, that group is an average minus-11.6 the past three postseasons — the bulk of which, excluding Vanek (who signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal in free agency), came in season-ending tilts to Chicago.
Goalie Devan Dubnyk, who accrued an NHL-best 27 wins after the Wild traded for him in January, gave up 11 goals on 111 shots — a .901 save percentage compared to his .936 regular-season mark after the trade.
"Feel sick," Dubnyk said. "Doesn’t feel right."
The 2013 Wild barely belonged on the same sheet as the Blackhawks, Parise said. Last year’s group largely outplayed them in a 4-2 series that ended with a weird bounce off an Xcel Energy Center stanchion and onto the stick of — who else? — Kane. But in a year Minnesota was supposed to finally be capable of eclipsing its past haunts, they returned in a fashion more thorough than ever before.
Kane now has 104 points in 103 career playoff games. Crawford improved to 12-3 against the Wild in the playoffs, with a 1.69 goals-against average.
"They want to be successful, they want to find ways to win and in the end they want to be champions," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, whose team has reached the Western Conference finals five of the past seven years. "They’ve had some good battles, some good challenges. They prepare for every game like that’s the game we have to win. They set the right tone, the right message, the guys who have been around from basically going back to the start of that seven. "
And the 2010 and 2013 (and 2015, perhaps?) Stanley Cup champions aren’t going anywhere. Not with the way both teams are aligned in the Central Division. Toews and Kane are under contract for seven more years.
There were no merchandise tents or festive gatherings lining the St. Paul streets before Thursday’s game. Instead, sheets of rain pounded the State of Hockey’s capital city, sending streams of water down Cathedral Hill and into the central downtown district below.
Hours later, the Wild’s hopes of taking the next step as a franchise were washed away in a similar manner.
"It’s not fun," said Parise, Minnesota’s all-time leading playoff scorer. "We got swept. We didn’t do nearly enough. I don’t know how else to characterize it."