The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild, Central Division rivals, will lock up in the post-season for the third time. Chicago took down the Wild in 2013 on their way to a Stanley Cup victory, then defeated Minnesota again in 2014. This year, the Wild are coming off an upset series win over the St. Louis Blues and the Blackhawks took down the Predators. Will the story change?
Two years ago, the Wild had to make do without starting goalie Niklas Backstrom after he injured himself ahead of Game One. That left netminding duties to Josh Harding. The year after that, it was up to Ilya Bryzgalov to hold the fort for Minnesota. Once again, it didn’t pan out. In this third playoff meeting between the two teams, Devan Dubnyk paints a very, very different picture in the Wild net.
If the series comes down to goaltending, Dubnyk will certainly have his team in fighting position. Chicago will turn to Corey Crawford, at least to start, and that could prove questionable. He struggled in his first two games against Nashville and was relieved, so consistency could be a factor. With the Wild ready and Chicago as prepared a team as you can get, this should be a good series.
Minnesota is another of those collaborative teams, receiving scoring from multiple players. They had 17 goals in six games against the Blues and eight players had at least one goal. Zach Parise was at the front of that line, with three goals and a total of seven points. He had two goals in Game Six, leading the Wild to a 4-1 victory, and he has the ability to take over games.
Minnesota has been using a top line of Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville for the playoffs so far and it’s been working. They had 17 points as a group. Granlund and Pominville both had five points in six games, with Pominville putting up two goals. Each had a game-winner. What’s more, Granlund, Parise and Pominville proved adept away from the puck as well and played a crisp, responsible two-way game.
Captain Mikko Koivu has been skating with Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart. Their combo has given the Wild considerable depth, with Niederreiter coming up with three goals in the series against the Blues. Koivu had three points.
In terms of offence, it’s hard to imagine a better team in these playoffs than the Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews has emerged with eight points, including three goals and five helpers. He has been all over the ice, with two of his three goals coming on the power play. Patrick Kane kept up with seven points of his own, including two goals and five assists.
Patrick Sharp is also worth some attention. He had three goals and two assists against the Blues, plus he peppered the St. Louis net with 24 shots. 36-year-old winger Marian Hossa joined Sharp with 24 shots, but he couldn’t find a goal in the series. He did post five assists and he was dangerous when he was on the ice, creating chances and making room for his linemates.
Chicago is also stacked with role-players like Antoine Vermette, who’s effective on the draw. He and Bryan Bickell have succeeded at winning puck battles, which has created opportunities for Sharp and propelled the attack. And Andrew Shaw adds sturdiness on the fourth line. He came up with a pair of assists in the opening round, but found himself in penalty trouble far too often.
Defensively, this series should be a battle. The Wild lead with Ryan Suter, who averaged 26:05 minutes a game in the first round. His play was a big part of the reason the Blues were held to just 2.33 goals a game in the series, a significant drop from their regular season average of 2.92. Suter and Jonas Brodin paired up to stifle St. Louis, with Brodin coming up with 15 blocked shots in the process.
Collectively, the Wild held the Blues to an average of 26.5 shots on goal per game. Only Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund managed more than a goal. The balance and poise on the blueline in Minnesota is perhaps second to none. There won’t be many explosive rushes, but they’ve got workhorses like Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella to rely on. Both D-men had a dozen blocked shots against St. Louis.
As for Chicago, their defence isn’t quite as daunting as previous years but it still boasts some fine talent. Any group that includes Duncan Keith, who had two goals and five assists against St. Louis, is a gifted group. Keith will see lots of ice time, as usual, and he’ll make the most of it. His two goals were both game-winners and he always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya round out the top four, while veterans Kimmo Timonen and Michal Rozsival are also factors. Coach Joel Quenneville has been shuffling the blueline deck a little and it’s paid off, with Keith skating with Rozsival for large parts of the first round and Timonen blending in with Seabrook. Oduya will need to be better, too. He was a minus-four against the Blues.
Dubnyk had the opportunity to prove himself in his first round of the playoffs ever and he did so. He put up a 2.32 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. He also had a shutout. The Vezina finalist seems ready to rock and that could spell bad news for the Blackhawks, especially as they face a stingy defence in front of the net. But Dubnyk can be rattled, as was proven in Game Four of the first round. Just don’t expect him to stay down for long.
Crawford found himself back in the driver’s seat for the Blackhawks and he hopes to stay there. Quenneville named him as the starter for Game One against the Wild, even after he let in nine goals in his first four periods against the Blues. Backup Scott Darling has better numbers on paper, but Crawford has the history and pedigree to get it done. The situation is far from settled in goal for Chicago, but both netminders have proven themselves ready for the challenge.
Simply put, the Wild could pull off this series. They have more defensive depth and are a more formidable team in goal, at least right now. The Blackhawks aren’t classic underdogs by any extent, but they could be in for more of a struggle than many think. Minnesota has a good, sharp hockey team. They’re scrappy and they play a solid possession game, which could keep the puck away from Chicago’s big guns.