Stanley Cup Playoffs Series Preview: Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Game 7 hero, Nino Niederreiter pursues the puck in the Chicago zone.

It was tough for the NHL to disguise its disappointment on Thursday night as its precious Avalanche were ambushed by an uber resilient effort by the Minnesota Wild who rallied back not once, not twice, not three times, but four times before scoring the game winner in overtime.  From former Wild goaltender Jamie “Noodles” McLennan offering consoling platitudes about Colorado’s bright future to NHL Home Ice radio’s Mick Kern and Mike Rossi falling over themselves to assure fans that the Avalanche’s best days are yet to come and that they shouldn’t be too disappointed by their loss to Minnesota.  The Wild were barely talked about, and if they were they were portrayed as a team who somehow snuck by Colorado with smoke and mirrors.  Nevermind the fact they outshot Colorado 33 to 24 in the series.  I guess young dynamic talent doesn’t have to shoot much.  So while the league and some of its experts are a bit bummed out by the Wild’s advance, fans across the State of Hockey are glad to finally have something to be proud of again.  Afterall it had been since 2003 since the team advanced in the playoffs.  While it certainly is not the Stanley Cup Finals, its progress.  The streak of one and done futility is over (at least for this year).  Yet do the Wild have enough for an encore?

Mikael Granlund battles with Chicago’s Marian Hossa.

The thing is, Chicago could be asking themselves the same thing.  After a regular season where Chicago battled through some rough stretches the Blackhawks gained back some of their status as a Western Conference power after dispatching the St. Louis Blues.  The Blackhawks certainly have a history of being hated in Minnesota, but the hatred still has been created like yet for Wild fans.  So will that hatred finally be kindled after a 2nd playoff series.  So what should fans expect?

MIkko Koivu awaits a pass on the power play.

Tale of the Tape:

Minnesota Wild                                       Chicago Blackhawks

Goals For: 3.14                                            Goals For: 3.33

Goals Against: 2.86                                    Goals Against: 2.33

Power Play: 14.3%                                      Power Play: 15%

Penalty Kill: 88%                                        Penalty Kill: 93.1%

Faceoffs: 53.6%                                            Faceoffs: 53.3%

Top 5 Scorers:                                               Top 5 Scorers:

#11 Parise ~ 3G 7A = 10pts                         #19 Toews ~ 3G 4A = 7pts

#9 Koivu ~ 1G 6A = 7pts                             #2 Keith ~ 2G 5A = 7pts

#3 Coyle ~ 3G 2A = 5pts                             #88 Kane ~ 3G 3A = 6pts

#64 Granlund ~ 2G 3A = 5pts                    #7 Seabrook ~ 2G 4A = 6pts

#21 Brodziak ~ 2G 3A = 5pts                      #65 Shaw ~ 2G 2A = 4pts

Top 3 PIM’s:                                                   Top 3 PIM’s:

#4 Stoner ~ 20 PIM’s                                    #7 Seabrook ~ 15 PIM’s

#8 McCormick ~ 14 PIM’s                            #52 Bollig ~ 12 PIM’s

#39 Prosser ~ 12 PIM’s                                 #88 Kane ~ 8 PIM’s

Top Goaltender:                                             Top Goaltender:

#35 Kuemper (3-1-1) 2.03GAA  .913%SP   #50 Crawford (4-2-2) 1.98GAA  .935%SP

Injuries:                                                            Injuries:

Josh Harding                                                   Nikolai Khabibulin

Niklas Backstrom

Keith Ballard

Jason Zucker

Regular Season Series Record: 3-1-1

Series Schedule: (all times listed in Central Standard Time)

May 2nd @ United Center at 8:30PM (NBCSN)

May 4th @ United Center at 2:00PM (NBC)

May 6th vs. Chicago at 8:00PM (NBCSN)

May 9th vs. Chicago TBD (TBD)

May 11th @ United Center TBD (TBD)

May 13th vs. Chicago TBD (TBD)

May 15th @ United Center TBD (TBD)

Why the Chicago Blackhawks will win:  Confidence might be Chicago’s greatest strength going into this series as the Blackhawks have the memories of shutting down Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs a season ago.  Chicago knows that memory will be weighing on the minds of Minnesota players and the Blackhawks have a way of saving their best hockey for the post-season, especially for its goaltender Corey Crawford who tightened up his game to help Chicago earn a 6-game series victory over the highly touted (and feared) St. Louis Blues.  The Blackhawks are led by their experienced 1-2 punch of ‘Captain Serious’ Jonathan Toews and slippery set up man Patrick Kane.  The Blackhawks may not be putting up monster totals but the potential is still certainly there with Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp as dangerous secondary weapons to go along with roster that has the ability to chip in offensively as well.  The Wild will certainly be willing to give some respect to last year’s playoff stud Bryan Bickell who seemed to raise his game two or three notches against the Wild on his way to earning a nice contract extension.  Super pest Andrew Shaw and pesky center Marcus Kruger work to not only shut opponents down but also frustrate them as they just won’t stop getting in the way.  Meanwhile Brandon Bollig will look to throw his big body around against Minnesota’s smaller forwards.

On the blueline the Blackhawks are rock solid with the very well-rounded pairing of Norris Trophy nominee Duncan Keith who can pretty much do it all and the physical (and perhaps a bit ornery) Brett Seabrook as his partner.  The Blackhawks have that nice dose of physical tools in Niklas Hjalmarsson and Michal Roszival as well as finesse in Nick Leddy.  The Blackhawks defense does not give up much in the way of scoring chances and then has enough skill to help get Chicago on the attack in a hurry.  Dump ins against them will have to be precise or the Blackhawks’ counter attack could be pretty devastating.

Between the pipes, the strong play of Corey Crawford has become a playoff staple for the last few seasons.  The defending Stanley Cup Champions may not have had the smoothest road this regular season, but the biggest games seem to bring out their best play and they’re counting on that in this Central Division championship.  On special teams the Blackhawks are again very impressive; with the playoffs best penalty kill and an above average power play which means this team can help cover up its mistakes in discipline as well as hurt you when your players take a dumb penalty.  Head Coach Joel Quenneville has very quietly built himself a very impressive record that puts him among the NHL’s greatest bench bosses so there’s little doubt Chicago will be both well rested and ready to play right from the start.

Why the Minnesota Wild will win:  Minnesota is coming off the euphoria of a dramatic 5-4 overtime victory in Game 7 over the Colorado Avalanche, the NHL’s current darling.  In fact if you watched the NHL Network or listened to NHL Home Ice radio, you would’ve heard league commentators doing their best to coddle the Avalanche for their surprising series loss to Minnesota.  Well, all that is behind the Wild now.  Minnesota certainly has not forgotten its last playoff series with the Blackhawks last season where the Wild were ousted in 5-games.  The Wild have felt they learned valuable lessons in that series and after watching them beat a very talented (and fast) Colorado squad you could say they put those lessons to good use.  Minnesota’s advantage so far in the playoffs has been its scoring depth; where it has embraced the ‘different hero each night’ type of approach.  Zach Parise has been the leader as one would expect, amongst the top scorers of the first round with 10 points has been consistent in the fact he’s found his way onto the scoresheet each game.  Team Captain Mikko Koivu also had a strong series, before burying his first goal of the playoffs in Game 7, while Jason Pominville is still waiting to heat up but has played well along side shifty playmaker Mikael Granlund who has followed up a strong regular season performance with an impressive showing in the post-season.  One player who also emerged from their first round battle with Colorado has been Charlie Coyle who has used his size, strength, speed and hands to be Minnesota’s leading goal scorer with 3 tallies to his credit.  Role players like Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Kyle Brodziak, and Matt Moulson will hope to provide the much-needed secondary scoring to support the Wild’s strong core.  People may remember that the Wild entered the Chicago series without Jason Pominville as he was concussed by a vicious elbow by Los Angeles’ Dustin Brown as well as Dany Heatley who got a season-ending shoulder injury from a scuffle with San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.  Heatley has re-entered the Wild lineup and has been playing well on the 4th line, whose 5 points places him 7th on the team as well as being a +5.  Together those pieces along with Moulson give Chicago’s defense a lot more to contend with than they did a season ago.  Minnesota will also hope its other role players like Justin Fontaine, Stephane Veilleux, and Cody McCormick can bring enough speed, grit and solid play at both ends to not become a liability for the Wild.  McCormick might be especially valuable in answering back for any actions taken by Chicago’s Brandon Bollig, and so far the former Sabre has proven to be both versatile and tough.  One x-factor in this series could be faceoffs; the Wild were the best team in playoffs on the draws and they’ll need to do so again unless they want to spend the game chasing around Chicago for the puck.

On defense the Wild will again lean heavily on Ryan Suter to log the mega minutes against Toews and Kane; he averaged 29:47 in Minnesota’s opening playoff series which is a tad bit less than he had in numerous games in the regular season.  Joining Suter will be Jared Spurgeon who had a reasonably good series against Colorado, providing finesse as well as being a solid puck mover who chipped in offensively.  Minnesota will also need another big series from Marco Scandella who played well at both ends of the ice.  Jonas Brodin logged slightly less minutes than did Spurgeon and the Wild must get the wafer thin Swede to play well if the team is to have a chance.  Rounding out the defense, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser provide the snarl and physical play the rest of the blueline lacks.  The Wild’s defense found ways to contribute offensively and support the forecheck by pinching up into the play.

As it has been most of the season, and as it was in last year’s playoffs; between the pipes is the biggest question mark for the Wild.  In Game 7 against the Avalanche, Darcy Kuemper was bumped into by Matt Duchene and his head hit the hip of Ryan Suter as he fell awkwardly.  Kuemper would leave the game in the 3rd period, looking a bit woozy and he did suffer a concussion earlier in the season so its hard to say if this is that issue coming back or did his knee buckle a bit as he fell.  Either way, if Kuemper can’t go, that means the workload will be placed upon the shoulders of the 6’3″ Russian quote machine that is Ilya Bryzgalov.  Bryzgalov has been both good, ordinary and ugly this season.  Game 7 didn’t really give him a lot of action as he had to make just one save in the Wild’s overtime victory on Thursday, but he must be prepared to carry the mail if Kuemper is indeed out of commission.  The one advantage Bryzgalov has is playoff experience; he’s played in the playoffs 41 times so he will be used to the pressure the Chicago crowd will bring.

Head Coach Mike Yeo is coming off his first playoff series victory and this season his team has shown tremendous resilience through injuries; most notably to his goaltenders as he has dressed 7 different players (and played 5 different players) between the pipes over the course of the season.  He certainly will be determined to rectify last year’s miserable playoff ouster and the Wild seem to have enough punch to go along with their strong defensive game.  On special teams the Wild’s penalty kill was pretty good; performing far better than it did in the regular season where it was near the bottom of the league.  On the power play the Wild have been a bit more of feast or famine.  Minnesota gave up 2 shorthanded goals to Colorado and no doubt Chicago is equally capable of doing the same if the Wild don’t execute well on the man advantage.

Prediction:  The proximity of this series should make for an interesting environment as both fanbases are well with travel range to bring fairly sizable contingents to the opposing arena each night.  Chicago brought it big time against St. Louis and Minnesota did a pretty good job of getting fans out to Colorado; with both teams that much closer I’d expect the game environment to be that much more exciting.

In the last series I predicted the Avalanche to win in six games.  I was wrong (not that I’m complaining), but I think Chicago’s experience and ability to play tougher around the crease will life tough for the Wild.  I am going to guess Chicago prevails in a 7 game series.  The Wild are going to make this one extremely difficult and on the nights they get their forecheck going I think Chicago could find itself in some trouble.  Yet if it becomes a run and gun affair the Wild will have a real hard time keeping up with Chicago.

About Derek Felska

I am a lifelong hockey fan from Minnesota who loves and appreciates the game at all levels. I have been blogging about the Minnesota Wild since 2005. I cover just about every aspect of the organization from the team itself, its coaches, its management, its broadcast as well as its AHL affiliate the Iowa Wild and the club's pool of prospects. In addition to the NHL I occasionally take the time to cover college and high school hockey as well. We are the State of Hockey and I want to make this blog informative and objective from the eyes of a fan. I am a fan of the Minnesota Wild, but I am no homer. I hope what you read reflects this approach!

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