Regular season recaps
Dec. 16: Wild 3, Blackhawks 5
Jan. 8: Blackhawks 4, Wild 2
Jan. 11: Wild 1, Blackhawks 4
Feb. 3: Blackhawks 0, Wild 3
April 7: Wild 2, Blackhawks 1
Blackhawks: LW Daniel Carcillo (upper body, day-to-day)
Wild: D Keith Ballard (concuussion/facial fractures, out indefinitely)
Keys to a Blackhawks Victory
There were no surprise heroes in the Blackhawks’ first round win over the Predators. Chicago won in six because the usual suspects showed up on the scoresheet. Jonathan Toews led the way with eight points, followed by Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane with seven each, and Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa both with five. These statistics partly reflect Nashville’s serious match-up problems while Shea Weber (dislocated knee cap) and Mike Fisher (lower body) missed several games each. The Wild will presumably have an easier time because Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter are ready to go. Still, the Blackhawks are a great team because of their stars, and those stars have gotten off to a great start this postseason.
Besides continued production from Chicago’s best skaters, the biggest key to a Blackhawks’ victory is a good performance between the pipes by ... whomever. Corey Crawford will get the start in Game 1, but this is his third chance in these playoffs. Scott Darling badly outplayed him in the Nashville series (.936 save percentage in 298 minutes as opposed to Crawford’s .850 in 129 minutes), and one has to assume that if Crawford gets the hook again, it will be for good. Devan Dubnyk seems hot again after his disastrous six goals-against in Game 5 against the Blues. If he seriously out-duels Crawford, Chicago won’t stand a chance.
Keys to a Wild Victory
Two years ago, the Wild lost to the Blackhawks in five games. One year ago, the Wild lost to the Blackhawks in six games. This year ... the Wild lose to the Blackhawks in seven games? Maybe not—those previous two series deeply affected the make-up of this team. Minnesota’s puck possession game began after that first series, the 2012-13 rout. Coach Mike Yeo realized that a grinding, defensive game away from the puck was no antidote to Chicago. The Wild’s best shot was to fight fire with fire.
One thing that distinguishes the Wild from the Predators is Minnesota’s scoring depth. Whereas Nashville struggled to spread snipers around its lineup, Minnesota can ably hide players like Thomas Vanek and Nino Neiderreiter in their bottom six, creating match-up problems for Chicago’s bottom pairing defensemen, Kimmo Timonen and Michal Rozsival, who coach Joel Quenneville didn’t trust and shouldn’t have trusted, respectively, in round one.
The Blackhawks’ forward depth, of course, isn’t half bad itself, and the Wild will need their deep, mobile D-corps to run the show for them. After Weber went down, the Predators’ young defensemen gave the Blackhawks’ forwards too much time and space, cedeing the blueline (and often much more). The Wild similarly struggled at times in their first series, losing the neutral zone battle to the Blues. Whichever team forces the other to abandon its possession game for a chip-and-chase strategy will win the series.
Early in the season, the Blackhawks beat up on the Wild thanks to superior goaltending. Those scales have tipped way in the other direction thanks to Devan Dubnyk. These teams are similar, but the Wild get the edge for not being on the verge of a full-scale goalie controversy. Wild in 7.