The Minnesota Wild entered this Western Conference semifinal battle as considerable underdogs to the Chicago Blackhawks, but they have a chance to grab a series lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions in Sunday's Game 5 showdown in the Windy City.
Minnesota dropped the first two tests of this best-of-seven set at Chicago's United Center and was outscored by a combined 9-3 margin in those setbacks. However, the Wild righted themselves at home by taking Game 3 by a 4-0 count before knotting the series at two games apiece with Friday's 4-2 triumph at Xcel Energy Center.
In order to grab their first lead of the series, however, the Wild will have to be the first team to beat Chicago on home ice in this postseason. The Blackhawks, winners of two Cup titles in the previous four years, are 5-0 at the United Center in the 2014 playoffs and boast a 16-2 record at home since the start of last spring's postseason.
Chicago will aim for a seventh consecutive home playoff victory on Sunday night.
Minnesota is just 1-5 as the road team in the 2014 playoffs, with its lone away victory coming in Game 7 of the opening round against Colorado. The Wild are 2-15 over their past 17 road tilts in the postseason.
On Friday, Matt Cooke provided an immediate spark in his return from a suspension to help the Wild remained undefeated at home in these playoffs.
Cooke received a seven-game ban for kneeing Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the opening round, and he didn't take long to make his presence felt, helping give Minnesota an early lead.
The antagonizing forward stole the puck from Chicago defenseman Michal Rozsival on the forecheck and dished to Justin Fontaine, who went top shelf to beat Crawford from the right circle 7:24 into the game. It was the first career playoff goal for Fontaine.
"It's fun to contribute and it's fun to chip in. It's just fun to be back out there again," Cooke said. "I should have fresh legs. I've got to go out there and lead the way and hopefully my energy is contagious."
In addition to the assist, Cooke also registered two shots on goal and delivered five hits in nearly 16 minutes of ice time.
Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon supplied the other goals for the Wild, who have outscored the opposition 16-5 while winning all five games at Xcel Energy Center.
Ilya Bryzgalov made 18 saves to help the Wild even the series.
Patrick Sharp and Michal Handzus each had goals for Chicago, while Corey Crawford stopped 27 shots in the setback.
"They worked for everything they got and we got to do the same," said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
While Cooke returned from a suspension to make in impact in Game 4, the Blackhawks lost forward Brandon Bollig for two games due to a boarding incident in Friday's contest.
The NHL handed Bollig a two-game suspension for his hit from behind on Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard late in the second period. Bollig was assessed with a minor penalty on the play, while Ballard was injured an did not return to the game.
Ballard has endured a history of concussions, the latest of which cost him seven games early in the regular season. He had returned to the lineup in Game 3 after missing the final 14 games of the regular season and nine postseason tilts with a pulled groin muscle.
Both Ballard and forward Matt Moulson, who sat out Game 4 due to a lower-body injury, did not make the trip to Chicago for tonight's game.
In addition to Bollig, Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw missed a third straight game with a lower-body injury he suffered in the series opener and expects to sit out again on Sunday.
The winner of Sunday's contest will get a chance to end the series when the clubs meet in Minnesota for Game 6 on Tuesday.