It took until the final night of the Western Conference schedule before the Chicago Blackhawks knew the identity of their first-round opponent. Would it be the Detroit Red Wings, their hated rivals? Would it be the Columbus Blue Jackets, and their Vezina quality goalie?
No ... it would be the Minnesota Wild. Surprisingly ...
Surprisingly because not many expected the Wild to be a playoff team so quickly, following the blockbuster signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last summer. But Parise became their leading scorer, Suter is a favorite for the Norris Trophy and the Wild's supporting cast played well enough to make the No. 8 seed.
Can they shock the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blackhawks?
Chicago Blackhawks (1) vs. Minnesota Wild (8)
April 30: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks, 8 p.m. ET.
May 3: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks, 9:30 p.m. ET.
May 5: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild, 3 p.m. ET.
May 7: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild, 9:30 p.m. ET
May 9: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks* TBD
May 11: Chicago Blackhawks at Minnesota Wild* TBD
May 12: Minnesota Wild at Chicago Blackhawks* TBD
The Blackhawks boast a half dozen outstanding offensive forwards who aren’t too shabby on the defensive end, either.
Jonathan Toews will be considered for the Hart and the Selke for his 48 points in 47 games. Patrick Kane recaptured his game – and for the most part stayed out of off the ice infamy– with 55 points. Marian Hossa returned from last season’s concussion with a 31-point campaign. Rookie Brandon Saad earned big ice time with the star players in posting 27 points. Patrick Sharp was slowed by an injury but managed 20 points in 28 games.
The Hawks have the kind of depth of their Stanley Cup winner, with some outstanding grunts: Bryan Bickell (23 points), Viktor Stahlberg, Andrew Shaw (15 points, and an agitator), as well as Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger, who were aces on the PK this season.
Dave Bolland’s health is a concern, but when he’s ready then Chicago has a perennial playoff standout in the lineup.
The Wild didn’t have a 20-goal scorer but came close with Zach Parise, whose 18 goals and 38 points led the team. Mikko Koivu (37 points), Devin Setoguchi (13 goals), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (20 points in 43 games), Matt Cullen (27 points in 42 games) and Charlie Coyle (14 points in 37 games) have provided some offense. Dany Heatley (11 goals) is done for the year, and deadline acquisition Jason Pominville (14 goals between Buffalo and Minnesota) is working his way back from injury.
Cal Clutterbuck and Zenon Konopka need to be factors in this series; from a physical standpoint and, in Konopka’s case, in the faceoff circle too.
Duncan Keith skated 24:06 per night and amassed 27 points for the Blackhawks, playing in all situations. He’s paired with Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has been nothing short of outstanding at times for the Hawks.
Brent Seabrook, Keith’s old partner, has been paired with Nick Leddy, and Leddy has thrived: 18 points this season and a plus-15. (Leddy, incidentally, was drafted by the Hawks.) Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya round out a very good collection of blue liners.
What can we expect from the Wild’s Ryan Suter? Thirty minutes a night? He led the NHL with 27:16 TOI per game, scoring 32 points and playing his way into the front of the Norris Trophy race. Rookie partner Jonas Brodin has been outstanding as well.
Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner Tom Gilbert and Marco Scandella make up the rest of the Wild blueline. Maybe Suter plays 40 per game …
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery earned a share of the Jennings Trophy this season for giving up only 102 goals on the season. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg on their stellar numbers.
Crawford was 19-5-5 with a 1.94 GAA. Emery was an astounding 17-1-0 with a 1.94 GAA. Both netminders have confidently backstopped the Blackhawks to the top of the conference. Is the postseason a different story? Crawford’s looking for his first playoff series win.
If the Wild are going to steal this series, it’s going to be thanks to Niklas Backstrom’s stellar play. His numbers weren’t gaudy: 2.48 GAA and a .909 save percentage. He’s been a work horse for the Wild, and has had some strong moments. But he’s going to have to steal games for Minny to win the series.
Does Their Season Deserve an Asterisk?
The Blackhawks’ 24-game regulation unbeaten streak from earlier this season should probably already have an asterisk, taking place in a season without a single game played against the Eastern Conference. The Wild just snuck into the postseason on the final night; would they have been a playoff team in an 82-game season?
Joel Quenneville is going to get Babcock’d for the Jack Adams, i.e. overlooked because he had the nerve to lead a talented team to a President’s Trophy. But he’s masterfully manipulated this lineup and managed his goalies to help the Hawks to the top of the conference.
Mike Yeo managed to get the Wild into the postseason despite some injury challenges, a less-than-inspiring defense and a multitude of young players that were better than their experience would indicate.
Neither team lights it up on the man advantage, as the Wild were No. 16 in the NHL at 17.9 percent effectiveness and the Blackhawks were No. 19 at 16.7 percent. But it’s the penalty kill were the teams differ greatly: The Blackhawks are at 87.2 percent effectiveness, good for third in the NHL; Minnesota was 18th at 80.7 percent.
Ministry’s “Keys To The City” ...
... vs. The State of Hockey anthem.
Blackhawks in 5.
The Wild are ahead of schedule, and the experience for some of their younger players in the postseason will beneficial down the line. If that sounds like a silver lining, that’s because it is: The Blackhawks are too deep and too strong defensively to allow for the No. 1 vs. No. 8 upset to happen here. The Wild steal a game at Xcel, but the Hawks eventually advance.