Chicago Blackhawks: 5 Matchups to Watch vs. Minnesota Wild
The Chicago Blackhawks get their Western Conference second-round series underway Friday night in an unexpected place. The opponent, however, is all too familiar.
The Minnesota Wild's upset of Colorado in the opening round provides the 'Hawks home ice in this series. It also gives the fans an encore of last season's playoff matchup in which Chicago dispatched the Wild in five games.
Both teams come into this round more or less as they did a year ago. These two clubs are familiar with what makes the other tick. There should be few surprises for either Chicago coach Joel Quenneville or Wild coach Mike Yeo.
Much as it did in the opening round with St. Louis, the meeting of divisional opponents should continue to amp up the playoff intensity. As Chicago and Minnesota prepare to lace up the skates, here are five matchups worth paying attention to in this series.
1. Chicago's Speed and Scoring vs. Minnesota's Blue Line
The Blackhawks aren't facing off with a deep defensive corps as they did with St. Louis, but the top pairing of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin is one of the league's most formidable.
Suter is going to be a constant thorn in Chicago's side. Expect him to continue to push the 30-minute barrier every game of the series.
The Wild are a team predicated on defense. Stopping the 'Hawks from entering the Minnesota zone cleanly and with numbers is going to be on the top of Coach Yeo's to-do list. The manner in which the Wild deal with Chicago's speed and scoring ability with be huge.
2. Corey Crawford vs. Darcy Kuemper
Corey Crawford, fresh off of a big series against St. Louis, faces off with...well, that depends.
Yeo went with the hot hand in net by playing Darcy Kuemper in five of his team's games with the Avs. Ilya Bryzgalov finished Minnesota's Game 7 triumph after Kuemper left in the third period with an injury.
Kuemper stopped 33 of 34 shots in a 2-1 Wild victory against the Blackhawks Jan. 26. The 23-year-old goalie has just eight playoff appearances, two of which came last season against Chicago. Kuemper relieved Josh Harding in both Game 4 and Game 5.
If Kuemper cannot go at any point in the series, net duties fall to the veteran Bryzgalov. The 33-year-old Russian has slumped as of late but was a valuable pickup for Minnesota late in the season. He also has underperformed in recent postseasons.
Whoever is in net for the Wild is going to have to tighten up his game. Last season, the 'Hawks sent a ton of rubber on goal. That game plan should not change in this series.
3. The Blackhawks' Time Off vs. the Wild's Momentum
Chicago closed out its first-round series with the Blues Sunday and have surely used the time off to recuperate from a physical St. Louis team. Minnesota barely has time to change its socks before hitting the United Center ice.
This can work two ways. Either the 'Hawks get caught napping by a team in the groove and fueled by the high of knocking off the Avalanche or Minnesota battles weary legs against an already deeper and faster opponent.
Actually, we will probably see a little of both: perhaps the former in Game 1 and the latter in Game 2. Chicago can really take control of the series with a dominating win to open the proceedings, forcing the Wild to fight fatigue Sunday down a game.
4. The Battle of Special Teams
Chicago's penalty kill was a big part of the first-round dispensing of St. Louis. Special teams is going to have a hand against the Wild as well.
The 'Hawks PK percentage in the first round was 93.1, tops in the playoffs. Minnesota was fifth overall, killing penalties at an 88 percent rate. Both teams potted three power-play goals against their first-round opponents.
The 'Hawks were uncharacteristically prone to committing infractions against the Blues. Both Chicago and Minnesota were among the least penalized teams in the league in the regular season. Staying out of the box is the best strategy in preventing power-play goals. However, it should be interesting to see which team neutralizes the other when they go a man down.
5. Chicago's Experience and Depth vs. Minnesota's Work Ethic
The Wild have little to lose in this series as they are the decided underdog. Coupled with a big franchise win in the first round, Minnesota should be playing hard throughout.
The Blackhawks have been in this position before. The fact that they have dropped three of five contests to Minnesota in the regular season should prevent overconfidence. The swagger of a defending champion was becoming apparent toward the end of the Blues series.
If Chicago is in possession of such swagger after a five-day layoff, it's going to be tough sledding for the Wild. If Minnesota proves willing to outwork the 'Hawks, this is going to be an interesting series.