ST. PAUL, Minn. -- At the same time Minnesota Wild players were stepping onto the ice for practice, workers outside the Xcel Energy Center were putting up a giant sign: Fight To The End.
So far in this Western Conference quarterfinals series between the Wild and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks, "fight" has been in short supply for the Wild.
Well, that’s definitely in sight after the Wild were pummeled 5-2 by Chicago on Friday night to give the Blackhawks a 2-0 series lead.
Game 3 is set for Sunday afternoon in Minnesota, the first playoff game in the building in five years.
"I think the place is going to be rocking tomorrow," coach Mike Yeo said Saturday. "We wish that it was a different scenario."
Unless the Wild can find some way to generate at least a modicum of offense while slowing a Chicago team that found another gear in Game 2, Sunday’s game will be but a prelude to the end for a team that was the talk of the NHL coming out of last offseason.
Certainly the signing of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to twin 13-year, $98 million contracts on July 4 upped the ante in terms of expectations for this team dramatically, as well as driving up the team’s profile across the league.
But if anything, this season has been a cautionary tale about both managing expectations and the complex nature of building a contending team.
As the Wild limped into the postseason as the eighth seed, it was clear expectations had been a little out of whack.
As for the building of a team, no one is suggesting that Parise and Suter are not as advertised.
Suter has especially been a force in the postseason, logging an average of 32:52 in ice time through the first two games. In the first game, a 2-1 overtime loss, Suter never seemed to leave the ice during the extra session. Still, he is minus-3 after two games and has not registered a point. Parise has struggled with zero points and a minus-3. He leads the team with nine shots but knows he needs to find a way to get some of those shots to find the back of the net.
“They don’t give you a lot of good chances,” Parise said of the Blackhawks, who have allowed three goals in two games while scoring seven times. “But I think each game we’ve had some good ones that we just didn’t finish. We’ve got to put those in. That’s the difference in the game right there.
"Game 1, I had one in overtime. And then Game 2, I had about 15 whacks right in front of the net. You’ve got to put those in. There’s really no excuse."
When you sign players like Parise and Suter to 13-year deals, it’s clear this is about the long view for a team whose history has been defined mostly by wheel-spinning and a kind of numbing mediocrity.
Those two players are the long-term cornerstones of a team that boasts an intriguing mix of high-end young talent, including Suter’s defense partner, 19-year-old Jonas Brodin, who will garner some consideration for rookie of the year honors. Another rookie, Charlie Coyle, has been playing with Mikko Koivu and Parise on the Wild’s top line with Dany Heatley out with an injured shoulder.
Jason Zucker is the third rookie who has been in the lineup for the Wild in this playoff series, and as we’ve seen with teams like the inexperienced New York Islanders, there is a definite on-the-fly learning experience that is part of the playoffs.
The Wild need to show -- as the Islanders did in stunning Pittsburgh in Game 2 of that Eastern Conference series -- that inexperience isn’t necessarily an impediment to evolving and winning as a series progresses.
"Each game, you gain a little bit of knowledge," Coyle said. "Whether it’s a lot or a little bit, every bit helps."
One part of the learning curve will be in not worrying about the big picture but the next shift and the shift after that.
You can’t identify a number -- oh, the Wild need to score three or four goals in order to win a game.
"You have to focus on the process," Coyle said.
The danger is that in realizing they need to win Game 3 or face the reality that their season will soon be over, do the nerves work at cross-purposes to achieving their goals?
That, said Yeo, is the great playoff question that all teams face at some point.
"This is part of the playoffs is dealing with those emotions right," he said.
Yeo was with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 as an assistant coach when they fell behind 2-0 to both Washington and Detroit before coming back to win both series -- and the Stanley Cup -- in seven games.
The Wild made a good accounting of themselves in Game 1, "and then last game we got crushed," said Yeo, the second-year head coach. “So how do you bounce back from that? That’s the challenge. Good teams and the teams that move on in the playoffs are the teams that are able to do that.”
And let’s be honest, the Blackhawks are a formidable opponent. Of that there is no doubt. They looked sluggish in Game 1 and still won. In Game 2, they peppered Josh Harding, who has been excellent in relief of the injured Niklas Backstrom, with 47 shots, 43 of which he stopped.
"You could tell that they brought a different level from Game 1 to Game 2. We didn’t do that," Parise said.
In the end, if Chicago does prevail, there will be no shame in losing to a team that set a regular-season record with points in 24 straight games from the start of the season and lost just seven games in regulation.
But that does not mean there isn’t great anticipation for these two games in Minnesota to see if the Wild can produce something more than what has been revealed in the opening two losses.
The Wild backed into the playoffs after flirting with the Northwest Division lead during the middle part of the season. But as they did a year ago when they fell from first overall in December 2011 to completely out of the playoffs, they wobbled mightily down the stretch.
These next two games will provide an excellent test of how much push back exists in this dressing room, a chance to make a statement about just what the future might have in store for this franchise.