(Ed. Note: With its new playoff format, the NHL is seeking to create passion for fans and teams through forced, bracketed relationships. But hey, at first glance, the matchups are pretty sexy. All of this led to one ideal theme for our 2014 Playoff Preview: Tinder, the social media dating app. We hope you swipe right this postseason ...)
The other three conference semifinal match-ups have elements of deep-rooted hate. The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild don’t have that rivalry feel to them, but that’s nothing that another seven-game series can’t help create.
Chicago dispatched Minnesota in the first-round a year ago in five games. The Blackhawks would go on to win the Stanley Cup. This season, they would meet five times, with the Wild coming out on top thrice.
With a conference final spot on the line, can the defending champs keep their repeat hopes alive or will the Cinderella Wild get fitted for another glass slipper?
The Blackhawks enjoyed scoring a full goal more per game in their six-game series against the St. Louis Blues. Eight different forwards scored a goal, led by three from Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews.
Toews has been the table-setter, winning 61-percent of his face-offs and tallying three game-winners, including the big overtime goal in Game 5 against the Blues. Kane’s right behind him with six points and second on the Blackhawks in Corsi-for percentage. Patrick Sharp has been a little slow warming up offensively, scoring a single goal in the opening round, but peppering the net with 23 shots.
Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell have picked up where they left off last postseason and have combined for four goals and seven points. Marian Hossa, like Sharp, is slow to get going with just a goal, but there’s no doubting his ability to create offense.
Like the Blackhawks, the Wild have received balance scoring up front, with 10 forwards getting their names in the goal column. First and foremost is Zach Parise, whose 10 points against the Colorado Avalanche ties him with Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings for the NHL lead among players still in the postseason.
A breakout star in Round 1 was Charlie Coyle, who scored three goals and assisted on three others and is second on the team in Corsi-for percentage behind Mikko Koivu. The captain scored only once, but assisted on five goals against the Avalanche.
Aside from Coyle, Minnesota’s scoring depth played a big role in their Round 1 victory. The long-forgotten Dany Heatley contributed five points, as did Kyle Brodziak and Mikael Granlund. That will need to continue to happen if the Wild are to have any chance at advancing past the Blackhawks.
Capping off the Wild’s secondary scoring was Nino Niederreiter and the night of his life in Game 7, scoring twice, including the overtime winner.
Chicago’s scoring wasn't limited to only up front. Their blue line played a role as well with all seven defensemen recording at least a point and four of them tallying goals.
The top pairing of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith led the way with 13 points. Despite missing three games due to suspension, Seabrook still recorded six points. Behind them are the minute-eating Niklas Hjalmarsson (27:41) and Johnny Oduya (24:38), who have been getting killed in the possession game.
Ryan Suter is the rock on the Wild blueline, averaging 29:47 through seven games and chipping in four points. He and partner Jonas Brodin (24:06, two points) will handle most of the load. Behind him will be Jared Spurgeon on the second pairing, who also logs more than 24 minutes a night and popped in two goals against Colorado. Along with Marco Scandella, also with a pair of goals to his name, the quartet are among the top defensemen in Corsi-for percentage through Round 1.
Corey Crawford was solid for the Blackhawks in six games against the Blues. He is second in minutes played with 425:09 and leads all goaltenders still in the playoffs in even-strength save percentage (.935).
The Wild will go with Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 1 as Darcy Kuemper remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury suffered in Game 7. Bryzgalov faced one shot in Game 7 and earned the win after stumbling in the opening two games of the series (8 goals against on 45 shots).
The Wild needed seven games to by the Avalanche, while the Blackhawks came-from-behind after being down 0-2 to the Blues. Both have their own momentum going.
Joel Quenneville has his horses in line and back in form after dropping the first two games to the Blues. Speaking of horses, his thoroughbred, Midnight Hawk, will likely be running in the Preakness Stakes later this month.
With his goaltending situation having been ravaged all season, Yeo has still found a way to get the Wild into the postseason and then administer a first-round upset of the Avalanche. He's challenged his players for more and so far they've responded.
The power plays for the Blackhawks and Wild have each scored three times on at least 20 chances (20 for Chicago, 21 for Minnesota), but Minnesota has allowed two shorthanded goals.
No team had a better penalty kill in the first round than the Blackhawks, who had a 93.1-percent success rate, allowing two goals on 29 opportunities. The Wild weren’t too far behind killing 22 of 25 chances for an 88-percent rate.
SERIES SLOW JAM
Because Chicago is unstoppable off the rush, rush
Players to watch.
SWIPE LEFT ON... Ilya Bryzgalov. He helped get the Wild into the playoffs, but couldn’t hang onto the no. 1 job early in the first round. Which Bryzgalov will we see?
SWIPE RIGHT ON... Patrick Sharp. After scoring just once against St. Louis, it’s only of time before Mr. Handsome gets going.
The Wild provided a nice first-round story with their Game 7 comebacks against the Avalanche, but the goaltending situation is too muddled to see them get by the defending champs. After a bumpy start against the Blues, Chicago has everything clicking at the moment. Blackhawks in 5.