The Chicago Blackhawks take the first step on the long road to the Stanley Cup Tuesday night. The 'Hawks host the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series after a dominating regular-season performance.
The Wild handed Chicago a loss this season—a 3-2 shootout decision back on Jan. 30. Minnesota has dropped six of its last 10 games to close the regular season. In terms of the postseason, both squads start on even ground when it comes to records.
Joining what will surely be a full house at the Madhouse on Madison will be all of us folks who couldn't secure tickets. Heading into the series opener, here are some areas to keep an eye on.
The Power Play
The Wild were shorthanded less than any team in the league this season, and the Blackhawks could not log a power-play goal against Minnesota in seven attempts. Though the 'Hawks may not get a lot of opportunities on the power play, the talent advantage in five-on-five hockey is solidly with Chicago.
Still, making Minnesota pay for time spent in the box could make for a shorter series.
Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are going to log huge minutes in this series. The 'Hawks enjoy a huge advantage in depth on the blue line. Over several games, Chicago should be able to wear down the Wild's best pairing and take advantage of mismatches with the lower pairings.
Of the teams currently in the Western Conference playoffs, Minnesota has given up the most goals by a wide margin.
The Third Line
Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg can have a big effect on this series.
This line is capable of playing the dump-and-chase style into which many postseason games can develop. Minnesota is going to use its top defensive pairing against Chicago's top two lines.
Over the course of the regular season, the third line has been able to create a lot of scoring opportunities. If Bickell and Stalberg can finish plays, the 'Hawks will be hard to stop.
Niklas Backstrom vs. Corey Crawford
If Niklas Backstrom can channel his inner Mike Smith, the Wild have a shot in this series. That doesn't appear likely, though, based on the season he had in net for Minnesota.
In three appearances against Chicago this season, Backstrom has a 2.19 goals against average and a .934 save percentage. His season totals jump up to 2.48 and .909, respectively. He is a solid goalie, but Crawford has been better, albeit with a better team in front of him.
Crawford is going to be depended upon to play well in this series with Ray Emery's health in doubt. The 'Hawks need the Crawford of the 2011 playoffs as opposed to the Crawford of last spring's first round.
How The 'Hawks Start
Establishing the dominant role in Game 1 could be the difference between a short series or a longer one. Crushing the confidence of a Wild team that has struggled of late with a couple of goals in the opening 20 minutes would really put Chicago in the driver's seat.
Crawford needs to come out tough and avoid soft goals that could give Minnesota hope of stealing a game at the United Center. On paper, the Blackhawks are a superior hockey team but need to display that talent advantage on the ice from the opening faceoff.