ST. PAUL, Minn. -- On a day when life was breathed back into the State of Hockey, it turned out to be the kid from Newport Beach, Calif., who did the resuscitating.
In what now ranks as one of the most important victories in franchise history, rookie Jason Zucker delivered the Minnesota Wild’s first home playoff victory in more than five years, snapping home the overtime winner just 2:15 into the extra session Sunday to give the Wild a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks still lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 set for Tuesday, but for a host of reasons, Sunday’s game was a significant test of character for the Wild and a huge payback for a fan base that might have wavered in recent years but has never let go its love affair with the team.
"It’s been a long time coming. And it was an entertaining game, an exciting game. Obviously, an overtime win is always great at home but in the playoffs and you’ve been waiting for so long, it’s very big," said center Matt Cullen, who was born in Virginia, Minn., and returned home to play for the Wild in 2010.
"It’s been a long time coming, and I’m a Minnesotan, so I know how long people have been waiting for playoff hockey. It’s a lot of fun," said Cullen, who was one of the Wild’s players, setting up the winning goal by shoveling a pass to Zucker from his belly behind the Blackhawk net.
After playing by far their best game of the series with a vigorous forecheck and more physical play, it looked like the Wild was actually going to slide into playoff oblivion. Holding onto a 2-1 lead late into the third period, the Wild lapsed into a passive mode, allowing the Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith to blast home the tying goal with 2:46 left in regulation.
"Yup, that sucked," Zach Parise acknowledged.
Had the Blackhawks finished the job in overtime to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, it would not have been a surprise to anyone, even the 19,238 holding their collective breaths in the Xcel Energy Center when the extra session opened.
"It didn’t matter how we got there, whether the whole period was tied 2-2 or whether they got one late, you can’t let that bother you. I think that was a little bit of the message between the third period and overtime," Parise said.
One of two key additions made by the Wild last offseason to help rejuvenate the stagnant franchise -- Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter signed identical 13-year deals worth $98 million last July 4 -- Parise had been frustrated by his lack of production as the Wild dropped the first two games in Chicago. He had zero points and was minus-three heading into Game 3 but scored on a backhand Sunday to give the Wild the 2-1 lead that looked for a long time like it would stand as the deciding marker.
Like Cullen, Parise is a Minnesotan and his desire to play in his home state was one of the key factors in his decision to leave New Jersey, where he’d played his whole career.
He said the vibe in the building was special, different on Sunday.
"They’ve been patiently waiting for a playoff team here. And we finally got one, got a team into the playoffs and then, most importantly, in the first game, you get a big win," Parise said. "You get the excitement and hopefully you carry that over into the fourth game. Like I said, the energy in the building was awesome and when we got the winning goal it was so loud, it was great."
Before Game 3, head coach Mike Yeo acknowledged he wasn’t sure how his team would respond after dropping Game 1 in overtime and then being crushed 5-2 in Game 2. But on Sunday it resembled the team that had for the middle part of the shortened regular season challenged Vancouver for the Northwest Division lead. The Wild outshot the Blackhawks 37-27 and outhit them 34-13.
And when it looked like all that hard work might be for naught, they found a way to reward not just their fans but themselves with a key win and what was the team’s first home playoff win since April 11, 2008.
"I think, at the end of the day, they deserved to win the game," Keith said.
"They were a little quicker than us tonight. I think our strength is using our speed and our skill and we need to use our speed. We didn’t use it enough tonight."
After the game, as many teams do, the Wild gathered near center ice to salute the fans with upraised sticks. On this day the gesture seemed to carry more meaning.
"Obviously, it's pretty special. Definitely for these fans but for our team too," said rookie Charlie Coyle, who picked up the primary assist on the Parise goal, his second assist in the series.
"We have a good group of guys in here. We’ve been working all season -- this is the result we want, this is where we wanted to be at the end of the season and we’re just going to keep going from here."