Blackhawks vs. Wild: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
Many people expected a highly anticipated run-and-gun series between the Colorado Avalanche and Chicago Blackhawks in the second round, but the Minnesota Wild had other plans.
With a remarkable Game 7 where they came back four times to tie the game before winning it all in overtime, the Wild made a statement entering the second round.
They will not be pushed around.
Chicago vs. Minnesota may not be the matchup that many wanted to see, but it has its own intriguing aspects. Both are armed with top-flight defenders in Duncan Keith and Ryan Suter. Snipers like Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Matt Moulson will be battling, and watching Ilya Bryzgalov in goal is always tough to turn away from.
Click through for information on some key aspects of the Central Division title series and a prediction on how it will turn out.
Blackhawks: Stumbling slightly late in the regular season, the Hawks fell out of running for the division title by going 11-10-1 after the Olympic break. That set them up for a difficult first-round battle with fellow Western Conference heavyweight St. Louis Blues. After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Blackhawks turned things around and won four straight to eliminate the Blues in six.
Wild: Going through goaltenders like candy, the Wild somehow still somehow bookended the season with a strong start and finish. Down the stretch, they went 6-1-1 to lock up a wild-card spot and a first-round series against the Central Division-leading Colorado Avalanche. They battled through a seven-game series and upset Colorado in overtime thanks to some strong team play, escaping the first round for only the second time.
Schedule and TV Info
|Friday, May 2||9:30 p.m. ET||Minnesota at Chicago||NBCSN, TSN, RDS|
|Sunday, May 4||3 p.m. ET||Minnesota at Chicago||NBC, TSN, RDS|
|Tuesday, May 6||9 p.m. ET||Chicago at Minnesota||CNBC, TSN, RDS2|
|Friday, May 9||TBD||Chicago at Minnesota||TSN|
|*Sunday, May 11||TBD||Minnesota at Chicago||TSN|
|*Tuesday, May 13||TBD||Chicago at Minnesota||TSN|
|*Thursday, May 15||TBD||Minnesota at Chicago||TSN|
* if necessary
Schedule courtesy of NHL.com
Musical goaltenders: We'll talk more about the Wild situation in net in a couple of slides, but whether or not rookie Darcy Kuemper is healthy enough to play this critical series could be the difference between a Blackhawks sweep or a seven-game series. He has missed time with a concussion this season and had to be pulled from Game 7 against the Avalanche on Wednesday after colliding with Ryan Suter. Head coach Mike Yeo told Dan Rosen of NHL.com he was unsure who would start on Friday.
Champs round into form: A rough start for the Blackhawks against the Blues became an epic bounce-back when they won four straight to get past St. Louis in what would have been a great conference final series. Although captain Jonathan Toews had three game-winners, the team spread the scoring around—and there was plenty of it. The Hawks scored 14 goals in the last four games, with a dozen different players netting at least one.
Comeback kids: The Wild seemingly spent the whole series against the Avalanche playing from behind. They were down 2-0 in the series, then avoided elimination and ultimately took the series by winning Games 6 and 7. In the final game, they climbed back from deficits four times before clinching it in overtime. They were relentless all series long and will need the same fortitude against a more well-rounded opponent in the Hawks.
Players to Watch
Nino Niederreiter: The former New York Islanders cast-off was a star in Game 7 for the Wild in Denver, and his role could be on the rise. Coach Mike Yeo told reporters that the 21-year-old set the bar for expectations with his big game. His chemistry with veterans Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley could create mismatches against the Blackhawks' lower lines in the series.
Patrick Kane: If Jonathan Toews was the trigger man in the first round, Kane was the guy who controlled the play. He's incredible to watch with the puck on his stick, and he always wants it. During the regular season, he ripped the Wild apart, scoring three times and earning five points in four games.
Eat Crow: One day, maybe Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford will get the respect he's earned. He could easily have been the Conn Smythe Trophy winner a year ago, and he outplayed Ryan Miller in the first round this spring after challenging himself to be better following a pair of early losses. His 1.98 goals-against average and .935 save percentage are both third-best in the playoffs among starters.
Easy Bryzy: As we mentioned previously, the Wild net continues to be a scary place. Darcy Kuemper was hurt in Game 7 against the Avalanche, and Ilya Bryzgalov came in for a dozen minutes or so of action to get the win. He played well down the stretch for the Wild but was awful in the first two games against Colorado; he was pulled for the rookie Kuemper after giving up eight goals and posting a .822 save percentage.
Depth on defense is a problem for the Wild, who may be underrated on the back end but have nowhere near the kind of lineup the Blackhawks boast behind Duncan Keith. After Ryan Suter, there's a significant drop-off for the Wild.
They'll have their hands full with wave after wave of Blackhawks forwards.
When it boils down to basics, though, a solid and experienced goaltender in Corey Crawford could prove to be the biggest mismatch when faced with either Darcy Kuemper or Ilya Bryzgalov—who both have proved they can play but not consistently.
The Blackhawks Will Win If They Stick to the Plan
They're more talented and deeper at every position, and on paper it looks like a complete mismatch beyond the top lines.
So the key for the Blackhawks is not to get too confident without putting forth the effort.
A shock to the system came after the first two losses to the Blues in Round 1, and they responded appropriately. Taking the Wild too lightly after such a hotly contested and physical series could lead to a huge letdown and leave them ripe for an upset if they don't get it together in time.
The Wild Will Win If Everything—I Mean Everything—Goes Perfectly
The Wild can't afford any slip-ups in the second round.
Their goaltending, regardless of whether it comes from Kuemper or Bryzgalov, has to be solid, if not spectacular.
The defense has to contain some of the best players in the world and limit their damage. Their own offense has to come up with enough production to get the best of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Their special teams have to be even more...special.
It's a tall order. However, it's one that can be accomplished if all these things happen and the Wild's brightest stars outshine the Hawks' top dogs.
Considering how the possession numbers rose for the Wild in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season, Minnesota could make things very tough on the highly favored Blackhawks.
Whether it was a case of the Avalanche crumbling or the Wild attack ramping up for the postseason, they managed to net the best five-on-five Fenwick rating of all playoff teams through the first round. The Blackhawks were one of the best in the regular season but struggled with possession against the Blues.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.