Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild: Preview and Prediction for Second Round
The Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild will meet in the second round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, after Minnesota emerged victorious in a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory over Colorado on Wednesday night.
The Wild ground out their first playoff series win since 2003 by finally winning a game on the road, a feat neither team had done prior to Game 7, in their back-and-forth series against the Avalanche.
The Blackhawks come roaring into the second round behind four straight victories over the St. Louis Blues. The Hawks dispatched their rival in six games, after falling behind in the series 2-0.
Chicago eliminated Minnesota in five games last season in their conference quarterfinal matchup, en route to a Stanley Cup title. The Wild won the season series this year 3-1-1, against Chicago's mark of 2-3-0.
Here's a look at the schedule and broadcast information for the upcoming series:
Schedule National TV
Game 1 Friday, May 2: Wild @ Blackhawks, 8:30 PM CT, NBCSN
Game 2 Sunday, May 4: Wild @ Blackhawks, 2:00 PM CT, NBC
Game 3 Tuesday, May 6: Blackhawks @ Wild, 8:00 PM CT, CNBC
Game 4 Friday, May 9: Blackhawks @ Wild, TBD
Game 5* Sunday, May 11: Wild @ Blackhawks, TBD
Game 6* Tuesday, May 13: Blackhawks @ Wild, TBD
Game 7* Thursday, May 15: Wild @ Blackhawks, TBD
Minnesota def. Colorado 4-3
Both the Wild and Blackhawks closed out their first-round series with emphatic performances.
Minnesota trailed the Avalanche the entire series. After going down 2-0 and 3-2 in the series, they didn't falter on home ice, taking care of business by dominating Game 6 in a 5-2 victory before the pivotal Game 7.
The Avalanche's Erik Johnson scored the go-ahead goal with just over eight minutes remaining in the third period, marking Colorado's fourth lead of the night. But Minnesota wouldn't be deterred and Jared Spurgeon's wrist shot knotted it up again at 4-4 with just over 3 minutes to play in regulation.
Starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper left the game after giving up the fourth goal with an undisclosed injury. Veteran Ilya Bryzgalov entered in relief and made one save to earn the victory.
The never-give-up mantra worked its magic once more for the Wild, who never led in the 5-4 overtime victory until Nino Niederreiter's game-winning goal beat Semyon Varlamov's glove early in the extra period. It was Niederreiter's second goal of the night and the series.
Winger Zach Parise is tied for first among all skaters this postseason in points with 10 and shared the team-high in goals during the first round with three. The Wild won two of the four overtime games they played in the series.
Chicago def. St. Louis 4-2
Perhaps drawing strength in adversity from their 2013 second round series against the Detroit Red Wings, the Blackhawks won four straight against St. Louis to send their rivals packing, after starting in an 0-2 hole.
Chicago's resurgence seemingly came after Brent Seabrook was suspended three games for a questionable hit on Blues captain David Backes, forcing the latter to miss Games 3 and 4.
Captain Jonathan Toews scored the game-winning goal in Games 3, 5 and 6, while Corey Crawford turned his series around—posting a goals-against average of 1.50 and a save percentage of .095% in the four victories—after giving up eight goals in the first two games.
The Blackhawks made a statement in Game 6, dominating the Blues in the third period of what had been a 1-1 contest to win 5-1 behind goals from Toews, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw and Duncan Keith.
The last two times that the Blackhawks have made it out of the first round, in 2010 and 2013 respectively, they've gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Chicago will be well-rested heading into Game 1 of the second round, as they've been off for four days.
Toews and Keith lead the team with seven points apiece, while Seabrook has tallied six—including two goals—despite playing in just three games as a result of his suspension.
The tandem of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane did not get off to a slow start this postseason, accounting for 13 points and six goals, including all four game-winners. Paired up at various times throughout recent postseason history, the two have been lethal.
On the back end, Duncan Keith tied Toews for the team lead with seven points—including two goals in the first round—while his partner Brent Seabrook added six points in just three games played against the Blues.
Sharpshooters Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have yet to really get going, with both recording just one goal each in the first round. Sharp lead the Blackhawks with 34 goals and 78 points in the regular season, while Hossa tallied an even 60 points behind 30 goals and 30 assists. Toews, Kane and Andrew Shaw all recorded at least 20 goals or more during the regular season, while Shaw has added two thus far in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks scored 20 goals over their six games with St. Louis, tying for fourth with Anaheim in goals-per-game in the first round.
The Wild got contributions from seemingly everywhere in the first round, tallying 22 goals from 13 different scorers. Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle share the team lead with three apiece, while Parise's seven helpers rank third so far among players this postseason.
Much like Hossa, Jason Pominville tallied just one goal in the first round, after compiling 30 goals and 30 assists in the regular season. The veteran winger was one of two players to tally over 20 during the season, with Parise being the other. Nino Niederreiter—the Game 7 hero—had 14 during the year, good for third on the team.
Niederreiter's pair of goals and Dany Heatley's productive return to the lineup in Game 7 could be good signs moving forward.
Minnesota's 22 goals in the first round were good for 3.14 per game.
Parise will be leaned on heavily and should do a fair amount of damage, but overall the Blackhawks depth on offense is much better than Minnesota's. The fact that Toews and Kane are both off to a hot start certainly doesn't bode well for the Wild, either.
The Blackhawks defensive core from the 2013 championship team remained in tact during the offseason and carries an enormous amount of experience into this year's gambit.
Led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, other d-men Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival all played big roles during the Cup run last season and have contributed 21 points— including six goals—this year.
During Seabrook's suspension, Sheldon Brookbank stepped into the system and added two assists and a plus-2 over three games, which speaks volumes to the Blackhawks' depth.
Keith led all defensemen with 55 assists in the regular season. He ranks second this postseason in ice time with 29:51 per game thus far. The Blackhawks will rely on him to neutralize Parise. Hjalmarsson was victimized more than any other Blackhawk in the first round, turning in a forgettable performance and a minus-5 over the six games.
Ryan Suter has been the workhorse head coach Mike Yeo needed him to be thus far in the postseason, as he was all season long for the Wild. Suter ranks right behind Keith in TOI through the first round at 29:47 per game.
Suter shared the team lead in plus-minus during the regular season at plus-15, while his 35 assists were second only to Mikko Koivu. Thus far, he's recorded four points—including a goal—and ranks second on the Wild in shots with 23.
Spurgeon's huge game-tying goal in Game 7 against Colorado that forced overtime was his second of the series—an impressive start considering that he scored only five goals in the regular season. Marco Scandella's start is even more impressive, with two goals as well, despite finding the net just three times over the season.
Jonas Brodin has yet to really get going but has added two assists on the back end.
Like on offense, the Blackhawks main advantages here are depth and experience, in which they are miles ahead of the Wild collectively. Duncan Keith against Zach Parise and Ryan Suter against Patrick Kane should provide some spectacular matchups over the series.
Corey Crawford was much maligned after his 2012 first-round performance against the Phoenix Coyotes but silenced his critics in 2013, as the Blackhawks marched on to win the Stanley Cup. This season saw Crawford as the starter the whole way through.
After giving up eight goals in the first two games against St. Louis, Crawford found his groove and turned in sparkling numbers, giving up just six goals over Chicago's final four games.
Crawford's numbers overall have been solid thus far. He comes into the second round with a GAA of 1.98 and a save-percentage at .935% after giving up 14 goals off of 215 shots against St. Louis.
The Wild's netminders were handed an unfortunate slew of injuries this season, as both starter Niklas Backstrom and backup Josh Harding were lost in the process. The postseason duties have fallen to Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov, who both turned in admirable performances in the regular-season.
Bryzgalov was acquired as a deadline deal and started the first-round series against the Avalanche. But thus far, he hasn't played very well and was pulled in favor of Kuemper—who started Games 3 through 7 in the series—as a result. However, an apparent injury late in Game 7 after the Avalanche went ahead 4-3 forced Kuemper to retire, and his return for the second round is in question.
The Wild are clearly a better team with Kuemper in net. The 23-year-old posted a 2.03 GAA to go along with a .913% save percentage against Colorado, while Bryzgalov's numbers were significantly worse at a 4.25 GAA and .826% SV clip. However, the veteran is no stranger to postseason play, and that could be an advantage moving forward.
Kuemper's health is—and will continue to be—the biggest storyline for Minnesota heading into this series. But the confidence that Crawford should be playing with right now after his performance against St. Louis—coupled with his experience from last season—gives Chicago the edge here.
The Blackhawks' power play converted 19.5% of the time during the regular season, but almost all of their success came in the early goings. This postseason, they've converted on just three of 20 power-play opportunities, a problem that plagued them in the latter half of the regular season.
The Blackhawks' penalty kill was stellar in the first round, leading all postseason teams at 93.1%.
The Wild, much like Chicago, were not great with the extra man against the Avalanche. Minnesota converted on just three of their 21 power-play opportunities. Their 14.3% clip is the second-lowest conversion rate among teams that advanced to the second round—only the New York Rangers were worse at 10.3%.
However, much like the Blackhawks, the Wild were dominate on the penalty kill in the first round, posting a sparkling 89.7% when they were short-handed.
Neither team has established itself with the extra skater thus far, and chances could be at a premium in this series, as neither team takes a lot of penalties.
Chicago: Patrick Sharp
Sharp lead the Blackhawks in points (78) and goals (34) during the regular season but has been awfully quiet so far this postseason. The sharpshooter—no pun intended—is a ridiculously streaky goal scorer and has been known to go through long stretches without scoring, before exploding to light the lamp early and often. Containing Sharp and making sure he doesn't get started will be key for the Wild, as he is difficult to stop once he's in a groove.
Minnesota: Darcy Kuemper
You could make the case here for several different Minnesota players, but Kuemper is the biggest wild card of them all. In a series that reeks of familiarity between the two teams after last year's postseason, Kuemper offers a breath of fresh air. He did not face the Blackhawks during the regular season, nor was he in net at all during the playoffs last year. Kuemper's health and subsequent performance will be paramount to Minnesota's chances of success.
Why the Blackhawks Will Win
Chicago has all of its core group of players, along with several of the role players from last year's championship team, in tact. Defeating the Blackhawks in a seven-game series has been one of the toughest mysteries for the NHL to solve in recent years, with the St. Louis Blues being the latest team to find that out. Chicago has incredible depth and home-ice advantage against Minnesota. Both are crucial, and the Blackhawks are 14-2 at the United Center in the playoffs dating back to the start of the 2013 postseason. The Hawks are playing with confidence and are no question the better and more skilled team on paper.
How the Wild Can Win
Minnesota showed true grit in winning a pivotal Game 7 on the road against Colorado and should feel like they can hang with anyone—even the defending champs. Their added depth offensively in Pominville and the emergence of Mikael Granlund could create problems for Corey Crawford, and the Wild could steal a game on the road in the first two. If Minnesota holds serve and continues their domination on home ice, and if Kuemper's health isn't an issue and he plays the best playoff series of his life, Minnesota could pull of another upset.
Prediction: Blackhawks in Five
With all due respect to Mike Yeo and the Minnesota Wild, the Blackhawks are the superior team heading into this series. The depth that Chicago has on both sides of the puck is simply too much, and Kuemper's health—while a storyline for now—should largely be irrelevant once the puck drops, as whoever is in net will have a major challenge limiting the Blackhawks' star forwards. If Yeo somehow manages to clone Suter to handle lines that don't include Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane, they'd still have to deal with the firepower of Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell, who were stalled slightly in the first round. The Blackhawks should dominate this series and move on to their fourth Western Conference Final in six seasons.