NHL playoffs preview: No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild
Jan. 30: Wild 3, Blackhawks 2 (SO)
March 5: Blackhawks 5, Wild 3
April 9: Blackhawks 1, Wild 0
Blackhawks: G Ray Emery (lower body, day-to-day); C Dave Bolland (groin injury, day-to-day)
Wild: RW Jason Pominville (head, day-to-day); RW Dany Heatley (shoulder surgery, out for season)
Chicago's keys to victory
The Hawks clicked in all areas this season. As a result, they set an NHL season-opening record by going their first 24 games without losing in regulation and suffered only a few brief lulls (three two-game losing streaks) the rest of the way. Only Pittsburgh scored more (152) than Chicago’s 149 goals and no team defended as well (an NHL-best 97 goals-against). The Hawks were far and away the league’s best team at even strength, and its third-best penalty-killing unit (87.2 percent). Almost impossible to come back against, they had the league's highest winning percentage (.897) when scoring the game’s first goal. In other words, there isn’t one salient area of concern. Having split time between goalies Corey Crawford (30 games) and Ray Emery (21 games), coach Joel Quenneville will need to decide if Crawford is an outright No. 1 or if he will share duties, assuming that Emery is back to full health.
Minnesota's keys to victory
Minnesota is one of just two teams -- Montreal's the other -- that limped into the playoffs with a losing record over its last 10 games, and the only one in the league to reach the postseason having allowed more goals (127) than it scored (122). Those are daunting, unimpressive facts, and it usually takes a veteran team to put such a performance out of mind and establish a fresh identity. But though this is an inexperienced playoff club, it does not lack veterans. Zach Parise , 28, was captain of the New Jersey Devils team that reached the Stanley Cup Final last season. Mikko Koivu, 30, is in his eighth year with the Wild. Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter and Matt Cullen are all capable of bringing veteran cool to pressure situations and their steadying presence will be crucial against the heavily favored Blackhawks. To have a chance, the Wild must control the puck and keep it away from Chicago's very capable scorers. Fortunately, Minnesota ranked third-best in the league in the dots (52.4 percent). Maintaining that success rate will be crucial.
Chicago in five: The Hawks have too much firepower for the Wild, who don’t score many goals and will be without injured sniper Heatley. Plus, Chicago's defense is stingy. That’s a recipe for a quick series, especially after some of the struggles Minnesota had late in the season. If not for a win against Colorado in their final regular season game, the Wild would be heading for the links and the Hawks would be greeting the Columbus Blue Jackets as their first-round foe. At best, the Wild can avoid making too many mistakes and can make the Hawks work for wins. In three head-to-head games this season, Chicago won twice, outscoring Minnesota by a competitive count of 8-6. With two or even three lines capable of producing goals at any time and a vastly underrated defense that extends well beyond Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the Hawks are rightly considered strong favorites. MORE PREP: Staff picks | Upset alert | Key storylines | X-factors | Power Rankings | Schedule