By Brian Hamilton
Regular season recaps
Minnesota win series, 3-2
Oct. 26: Wild 5, Blackhawks 3
Oct. 28: Blackhawks 5, Wild 1
Dec. 5: Wild 4, Blackhawks 3
Jan. 23: Wild 2, Blackhawks 1
April 3: Blackhawks 3, Wild 2 (SO)
Keys to a Blackhawks victory
The defending Stanley Cup champions relearned a valuable lesson against the St. Louis Blues in the first round: They are at their best when they don't pretend to be something other than what they are. After falling into a 2-0 series hole, the Hawks cut out the shoving and hyper-physicality and extracurricular scrums. They started skating and possessing the puck, and they won four straight games as a result. Minnesota won't challenge Chicago physically in the same ways the Blues did, but the series will be a test of patience and therefore resolve. The Blackhawks must be persistent with their attack, even if things get mucked up in the middle of the ice. By the end of the Blues series, all of Chicago's important cogs were scoring – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp – and that should continue as long as the Hawks don't get frustrated and go for home-run attacks instead of steady offensive pressure. It also will help if Duncan Keith keeps playing like he's after Greatest Defenseman Ever honors in this postseason. His seven points led the Blackhawks in the first round and his four-point, all-over-the-ice effort in Game 6 against the Blues was all-world. Reunited with Brent Seabrook after Seabrook was hit with a three-game suspension in the first round, Keith seemed rejuvenated. He'll again be critical to activating the offense as well as slowing Minnesota's top offensive line, which got humming against Colorado. And goaltender Corey Crawford (1.98 goals against, .935 save percentage in the first round) can be the ultimate equalizer.
Keys to a Wild victory
Minnesota's fortunes will come down to goaltending, which is inauspicious in a couple of ways: Minnesota started four different No. 1s this season, Darcy Kuemper suffered an apparent head injury in Game 7 against the Avalanche, and the Blackhawks have line after line of scoring potential. So the Wild must be solid through the neutral zone and everywhere in front of their crease, limiting mistakes that lead to easy counterattacks and making Chicago earn every chance it gets. Zach Parise (three goals, seven assists vs. Colorado in the first round) must continue to produce like a superstar even as he is likely matched up against Keith and Seabrook – as much as Hawks coach Joel Quenneville can make that happen, anyway. And Minnesota's supplementary scoring must continue. These Wild have more depth than the edition that got bounced by the Blackhawks last year. Center Mikael Granlund (five points, plus-3 in the first round) has arguably been Minnesota's second-best player in the postseason thus far. Maybe the Wild can't expect to match the Blackhawks' offensive potential, but Minnesota will fall hopelessly behind without production throughout its lineup, not just from its top line.
Blackhawks in 6. The Central Division features a few teams that are seemingly on the rise: The Stars, the Avalanche, and the Wild. The Blackhawks, of course, are now the monolithic power club – a third-place finish in their own division didn't really upend their status as one of the Stanley Cup championship favorites when the postseason began. Given that Chicago ousted Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs last year, this has a familiar thematic feel: The up-and-coming team faces the one established powerhouse that it must defeat in order to not only advance, but to validate itself as a legitimate force. Think Blackhawks-Red Wings about five years ago, with Chicago switching roles from emerging club to lodestar franchise. The problem for the Wild? They've closed the talent gap on the Blackhawks since last postseason, but only by adding depth, not superstar firepower. They will be weary after their seven games against Colorado while Chicago is rested with home-ice advantage. Unless the defending champs are carrying some serious physical aftereffects from their bruising opening series with the Blues, there's really nothing Chicago will encounter that will seem like an insurmountable challenge. Playing St. Louis is like taking practice swings with weights on the bat. Playing Minnesota is then swinging with the donuts removed from the barrel. The Wild might carry the momentum of their series win over the Avalanche to an early upset win on United Center ice. The Blackhawks will shrug. They've seen much, much worse during the last two seasons and remained standing.
(All times Eastern; * if necessary)
Game 1: Fri. 5/2 at Chi, 9:30 (NBCSN, TSN, RDS)
Game 2: Sun. 5/4 at Chi, 3 (NBC, TSN, RDS)
Game 3: Tues. 5/6 at Min, 9 (CNBCS, TSN, RDS2)
Game 4: Fri. 5/9 at Min, TBD (TSN)
Game 5: Sun. 5/11 at Chi, TBD (TSN)
Game 6: Thur. 5/1 at Min, TBD (TSN)
Game 7: Thur. 5/1 at Chi, TBD (TSN)