The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the United Center for Game 5 of their Western Conference quarterfinal against the Minnesota Wild. The series could end Thursday with a Blackhawks victory.
The 'Hawks have a 3-1 lead over Minnesota and are coming off of a 3-0 blanking of the Wild in Game 4. Here are five questions that will be answered over the course of what could be a close-out contest.
1. Who's In Net For The Wild?
ESPN.com's Scott Burnside wrote a piece on Minnesota's shaky situation in net. Coach Mike Yeo doesn't seem to have a lot of options. Josh Harding left Tuesday's game with what looks to be an injured knee. Niklas Backstrom only dressed for the third period in Game 4 as an emergency back up.
Darcy Kuemper, who played the last 40 minutes in place of Harding Tuesday, is likely to get the nod in net. Depending on the health of Harding or Backstrom, he may stay in net even if the 'Hawks light him up early. We may see Jeff Deslauriers in a ball cap on the Wild bench.
2. How Does Minnesota Come Out To Play?
The Wild tried clogging the middle in the first two games of the series, then tried to muscle Chicago in the two games in Minnesota. What is Yeo's strategy Thursday?
If Kuemper is the man in net, Yeo is going to have to limit the 'Hawks when it comes to shots on goal. If Chicago even begins to approach Game 2's 48-shot effort, this series should be over. On the other hand, Harding played inspired hockey when filling in for Backstrom. Kuemper could do the same if he gets the start.
3. Who's In The Lineup For Chicago?
Daniel Carcillo was inserted for Brandon Bollig Tuesday but skated less than four minutes in Game 4. Coach Joel Quenneville needs to roll his lines out there and wear down the Wild, as has been the case in three of the four games.
If Quenneville doesn't want to use Bollig, Ben Smith would be a nice addition to the lineup for Game 5 with Michael Frolik and Marcus Kruger on the fourth line. Jeremy Morin would also be a welcome sight, so long as Quenneville utilizes all of his forwards.
4. Can The Blackhawks Continue To Hold Minnesota's Top Line In Check?
Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, and Charlie Coyle have three points between them and are a minus-14 for the series. They have just as many points as the 'Hawks top line of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad.
Chicago can get away with these forward lines skating to a draw on the score sheet because of their depth. If the Wild can get scoring from their top group, it will be very tough to extend the series.
5. Will The Blackhawks Advance Tonight?
Such uncertainty in net for Minnesota and the 'Hawks lines just rolling along may prove to be hard for the Wild to handle. If Yeo has a card left to play in this series, he'd better lay it down Thursday night.
A strong first period should topple Minnesota in Game 5. However, the Blackhawks have also shown that they can win by patiently waiting for their opportunities. For these reasons, I think Chicago takes Game 5 and ends Minnesota's season.