Minnesota Wild's 5 Biggest Concerns in Playoff Series vs. Chicago Blackhawks
After failing to exhibit much competition in the first two games of the series, the Minnesota Wild rebounded to take Game 3 at home Tuesday night, 4-0.
Ilya Bryzgalov earned his fourth career postseason shutout to move the Wild within one game of tying the series. Minnesota bowed out to the Blackhawks in five games in 2013 but is determined to deny history from repeating itself.
After last season’s defeat, there may be a better understanding as to what it’s up against. Minnesota won the regular-season series over the Blackhawks, going 3-1-1 in five meetings.
Heading into Game 4 there are still some concerns on the minds of Wild faithful. Yes, it dispatched the top-seeded Colorado Avalanche in seven games, but Chicago is a different animal.
The defending champs have lost the first road game in each of their last nine playoff series but are sure to rebound after a disappointing Game 3.
The Wild have home-ice advantage in Game 4 and a golden opportunity to even the series. There is still plenty of hockey left, as well as an ample amount of factors the Wild need to attend to.
After dropping the first two games in Chicago, the Wild fell to 1-5 on the road this postseason.
Minnesota’s one road win came in Game 7 in Colorado, but the team has surrendered four or more goals in every game away from Xcel Energy Center.
Strangely, it has scored the second-most goals on the road (17) behind only Los Angeles (19). It has, however, submitted the most goals against (26).
As the lowest enduring seed in the Western Conference, Minnesota will be on the road throughout the remainder of the postseason. It will be difficult to imagine the team advancing any further without vast improvement.
It has also struggled with the man advantage on the road. In 15 power-play opportunities, the Wild have tallied just a single goal. Their 6.7 road power-play percentage is the second-worst mark among teams that qualified for the playoffs. Only the New York Rangers are worse (0-of-21).
At best, Minnesota would make two more trips to Chicago, where it has been outscored 9-3. If it can dictate the pace of play as it did in Game 3, Minnesota has a shot.
If it’s forced to keep up with Chicago’s fast-paced offense, the series could be over quickly.
Minnesota’s top-six forwards were able to break through offensively in Game 4, but they can certainly do more.
The Wild’s top lines totaled just two points (both assists) in the first two games. Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund notched two points each in Game 3 alone.
Parise’s 13 points are second only to Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar (14) in the playoffs. He is the only Wild player with double-digit points, and he is tied with Granlund for the team lead in goals (four).
Pominville’s seven assists are second on the team, but he has produced just one goal. Team captain Mikko Koivu is averaging over 20 minutes of ice time, but he has just one goal and six points.
Minnesota’s top lines from Game 3 are a combined minus-six in the playoffs, but they totaled eight points (three goals, five assists) and a plus-six rating Tuesday night.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Minnesota’s offense is dependent on its stars. Parise has been excellent, but he will need his supporting cast to step up if the team hopes to advance.
Chicago has incredible depth up front, but the Wild certainly has enough firepower to keep up. These players need a repeat performance in order to even the series.
Matt Moulson's Dormant Offense
The Wild acquired Matt Moulson along with Cody McCormick at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Torrey Mitchell and two second-round picks.
Moulson totaled 23 goals and 51 points in 75 games between the New York Islanders, Buffalo and Minnesota. Through 10 postseason games, he has just one goal and three points. He totaled two goals and three points in six playoff games with the Islanders in 2013.
He scored six goals and 13 points in 20 regular-season games with the Wild but has struggled to make his presence felt in the postseason.
Minnesota needs him to produce, but his struggles had him demoted to the third line alongside Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. The demotion hasn’t seemed to bother him, via the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo.
"You can’t let yourself get frustrated. You have to play your game, and for me, that’s getting around the net and putting in those dirty goals. You just have to tell yourself to keep working and try to raise it up another level."
He notched his first point of the series in Game 3, awarded a modest second assist on Haula’s goal in the third period.
The line combined for the game-winning goal in Tuesday’s game and perhaps could be the boost Moulson needs.
If he can get on track along with rest of the Wild’s stars, the series can take a favorable turn. He averaged more than 15 minutes per game before playing just 9:36 in Game 3. He’ll still see time on the power play, which would be the perfect place for him—and the team—to step up.
Can Ilya Bryzgalov Be the Guy?
After losing both Josh Harding and Nicklas Backstrom for the season, Minnesota went into the postseason with Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Bryzgalov struggled out of the gate, giving way to Kuemper after two games. An injury to Kuemper in Game 7 against Colorado gave him a second opportunity.
After surrendering seven goals in the first two games against Chicago, he stopped all 19 shots faced in Game 3. It was his first postseason shutout since 2006 and fourth of his career.
On paper, Bryzgalov’s Game 3 performance was impressive, but diving deeper into the fine print shows Chicago’s stars were not on their game. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa combined for just eight shots on goal.
As the starter, Kuemper went 3-1-1 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. Bryzgalov is 2-4-1 with a 3.09 goals-against average and .860 save percentage.
His first postseason win as Minnesota’s starter came in Game 3. His only other win came in relief of Kuemper, making one save in 13:15 of ice time in Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
He’ll need to prove he’s up to the task if Minnesota wants to fight back in this series. He rebounded well at home in Game 3, but as the guy going forward, he must prove he can put together consecutive quality starts.
Goaltending plays a key role in this series, as neither are considered among the NHL’s elite. Bryzgalov will need to substantiate his resolve for Minnesota in order to remain alive in the Cup hunt.
Can They Win the Special Teams Battle?
Minnesota was able to score its first power-play goal of the series in Game 4. It is now 1-of-8 in the series and 4-of-29 overall.
At 13.8 percent with the man advantage, Minnesota is ranked 10th among playoff teams and second-worst among those still active.
The Wild finally broke the barrier, however; Chicago still sports the best penalty kill in the playoffs at 91.9 percent. The Blackhawks have surrendered only three goals in 37 times short-handed.
Chicago’s power play isn’t vastly superior, only capitalizing on 17.9 of its chances (5-for-28). However, it is 2-of-8 this series and shooting at a 25 percent clip.
Minnesota’s penalty kill ranks fourth among the remaining clubs at 84.8 percent and has held Chicago to just four power plays over the last two games.
At even strength both teams have scored 21 goals in the playoffs, while Minnesota has given up the second-most (18).
Head-to-head, the two clubs match up surprisingly well, which makes the special teams’ battle all the more significant.
Minnesota hasn’t surrendered a power-play goal since the second period of Game 1, killing six straight. With the man advantage, the Wild scored their first of the series in the third period of Game 3.
With the way the action is trending in Minnesota’s favor, it’s within the realm of possibility that the Wild can win the “special” aspects of the game.
It will take a significant amount of effort and energy, but if Game 3 is any indication, this series is far from over.
All statistics are courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted.