Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 2: Keys for Each Team

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2014

Minnesota Wild vs. Chicago Blackhawks Game 2: Keys for Each Team

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Chicago Blackhawks were pushed hard in Game 1 of their second-round series by the Minnesota Wild.

    The final score of 5-2 makes it look like they were in control from start to finish and won the game easily. However, the game was anything but a walkover, and the Blackhawks know they are going to have to come up with a better effort in Game 2 if they are going to string back-to-back victories together.

    The Wild overcame significant adversity in the first round of the playoffs, as they rallied to win Game 7 on the road after facing four separate deficits. They are not going to let losing the first game of the series cause angst.

    In this piece, we look at the factors that should prove most decisive for each team in Game 2 of the series.

Minnesota Wild Key: Zach Parise Must Lead the Way

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    Zach Parise is a proven playoff performer, and he has started to pay big dividends for the Minnesota Wild.

    After signing a 13-year, $98 million free-agent contract prior to the 2013 lockout-shortened season, Parise wanted to lead his new team to the same kind of postseason success he had enjoyed with the New Jersey Devils in the first part of his career.

    The Devils went all the way to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Los Angeles Kings, and they did it largely on Parise's stellar play.

    Parise was on top of his game in the first round vs. the Avalanche. He scored 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the seven-game series, and his two-goal effort in a Game 6 was one of the primary reasons Minnesota was able to force Game 7.

    Parise was fine in Game 1 against the Blackhawks, as he registered an assist and a game-high six shots on goal. The Wild need Parise to find the back of the net against the Blackhawks and once again provide the leadership needed to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Can Toews Match Kane?

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    They are superstar teammates who have been in lockstep since they entered the NHL as teenagers in the 2007-08 season. 

    Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the Chicago Blackhawks' version of the Gold Dust Twins, and they have already raised two Stanley Cups together. You get the feeling that there will be more celebrations in their future.

    Kane is the spectacular scorer who can weave through a phalanx of defenders and finish off the move with an electrifying goal. He seemingly has the ability to do this on an every-night basis.

    Toews, on the other hand, is a player who does everything. He is one of the best defensive players in the league, is a wizard on faceoffs and he can score in the clutch.

    Kane and Toews form a great one-two punch, but there is also a subtle competition that drives their production. Since Kane had a two-goal night in Game 1, look for Toews to put forth a big effort in Game 2.

    Kane won Game 4 of the first-round series against St. Louis with an overtime goal; Toews did the same thing in Game 5.

    Expect Toews to take the baton in Game 2 and put his signature on it with a strong showing.

Minnesota Wild Key: Improved Play in Goal

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    There's a theory in the NHL that you don't need to have an elite goaltender to win in the NHL.

    The Chicago Blackhawks subscribe to that theory. General manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville have put together a team that dominates possession time and lets its spectacular offensive ability carry the day.

    Combine that talent with adequate play from Corey Crawford in net, and the Blackhawks have their winning formula.

    The Wild would like to subscribe to the same theory. They have speed and talent themselves and have improved dramatically over the past two seasons.

    But there's a problem in goal. The Wild had to go with Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 1 because rookie Darcy Kuemper was injured in Game 7 vs. the Colorado Avalanche. The Blackhawks fired 21 shots at Bryzgalov in Game 1 and four of them got by him.

    That's not good enough. The Wild need Bryzgalov to be more effective in Game 2, but that may be too much to ask. He has an erratic postseason history. His save percentage in the 2011 playoffs was .879 with the Phoenix Coyotes and .887 with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. This year, he has a 4.16 goals-against average and an .821 save percentage.

    If Bryzgalov can't improve his performance or Kuemper can't make an unexpected return, the Wild could be in for trouble in Game 2.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Penalty Kill Consistency Is Vital

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Blackhawks' ability to defend is often trumped by the number of elite offensive performers who can take over a game at any time.

    But they would not have won two Stanley Cups in the last four seasons if they could not play defense, in general, and kill penalties, in particular.

    The Blackhawks are the best penalty-killing team in the 2014 playoffs thus far. They have stopped 93.8 percent of their opponents' power-play opportunities.

    They have been successful on 30 of 32 penalty-kill opportunities in this year's postseason. As good as Toews, Michal Handzus, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been against the league, they have punished the Wild. They have stopped Minnesota's last 20 power-play chances, dating back to last year's playoff meeting.

    The Blackhawks need to continue with their excellence on the penalty kill in Game 2.

Minnesota Wild Key: Youth Must Be Served

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    Chris Schneider/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Wild dominated Game 1 against the Blackhawks for long periods. They had a 17-3 advantage in shots on goal in the second period and very well could have been tied or held the lead going into the third period if the two teams' goaltending fortunes had been reversed.

    The Wild are a fast, aggressive offensive team. While much of that is due to the one-two combination of Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, it's the youth of the Wild's young core that has also pushed the team forward.

    When the Wild take the ice at the United Center in Game 2, head coach Mike Yeo will be looking for Mikael Granlund (22), Nino Niederreiter (21), Charlie Coyle (22) and Erik Haula (23) to step forward. 

    Granlund is becoming one of the best young playmakers in the game, while Niederreiter scored two goals in Game 7 against the Avs, including the winner in overtime. Coyle is a hard-working player who will go into the corner and come out with the puck, while Haula is one of the fastest skaters on the team.

    The Wild needs this four-pack of youngsters to put their imprint on Game 2.

Chicago Blackhawks Key: Smith's Ability to Step in for Shaw

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Andrew Shaw provides the Blackhawks with energy and opportunism. He's not an elite talent, but he makes up for that deficiency with hard work, hustle and an ability to play the game on the edge.

    Shaw went down in Game 1 with an apparent right leg injury after taking a hit from Minnesota's Clayton Stoner in the first period. Shaw played just 3:01 before he retired to the trainer's room. Head coach Joel Quenneville told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times after the game that Shaw was "day-to-day."

    Look for underrated Ben Smith to take most of Shaw's time on a line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Smith is a hustler who has scored a goal and two assists in seven postseason games this year, and he has a plus-five rating.

    The transition from Shaw to Smith may not be seamless, but Smith is good enough to keep the Blackhawks' explosive offense pushing forward in Game 2 against the Wild.