Last season, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference ended up being the best team in the playoffs. It was from that position, the lowest seed in the West, that the LA Kings ran through the competition on their way to the Stanley Cup.
It would probably be wise to not hold such hopes for the Minnesota Wild.
Not only did the Wild struggle down the stretch and do just enough to hang on to the final playoff spot, they draw what was hands down the best team in the NHL this season in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks were only beaten 12 times in 48 games -- and five of those came in shootouts. To ask for any 8-seed to beat them four times in the maximum of seven tries is a gargantuan task.
Minnesota is happy to be back in the playoffs after a three-year absence, no doubt, but you can't imagine they're too happy with the draw that they have. Nobody wants to play the Blackhawks.
CHI Offense vs. MIN Defense
There is no more feared offense in the West than the Chicago Blackhawks. They are the NHL's second-most-productive offense, with an average of 3.10 goals per game. And that's playing in the Western Conference, where goal scoring is nowhere near as prevalent as the East. They have multiple guys and lines that can score. Patrick Kane had a monster year, Jonathan Toews was as good as usual, Marian Hossa is playing like he can, etc. Now, just imagine if Patrick Sharp can ever get clicking. By the way, the Hawks are also an excellent puck-possession team, directing 55.91 percentage of shots on their opponents this season in close games (one-goal leads or ties). Part of what makes the offense so tough is they are so often on offense.
When you think of the Wild, you tend to think of a defensive team, mostly based on last year under Mike Yeo. But even with the addition of Ryan Suter and the emergence of Jonas Brodin, they were very average defensively this season. Their 2.60 goals against per game finished smack dab in the middle of the rankings. However, they did a good job of limiting opponents' shots this season, only 27.1 attempts per game, the sixth fewest in the league. But keeping the Hawks in check will be tough. Very tough.
MIN Offense vs. CHI Defense
Even with the additions of Zach Parise and Jason Pominville to a team that already had Dany Heatley and company, the Wild still struggled to score, finishing 22nd in the league with 2.46 goals per night. They have been outshooting their opponents this season, indicating better possession players, but it's only a marginal edge in their favor. Fact is they lost nine of the last 14 games because they were struggling to score. In only two of those losses did they have two goals.
As good as the Blackhawks are offensively, they are better on D. Part of that has to do with the simple fact that they are on offense the majority of the time. It's also partly due to the men in the crease. However, the Blackhawks have as much talent on the blue line as they do up front, comparatively. All told, the Hawks gave up fewer goals than any team in the league, a stingy average of only 2.02 per game.
Many will take the approach of wait and see on the Blackhawks' duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery when it comes to performing in the postseason, but the duo couldn't have done any better during the regular season. They each had matching goals against averages of 1.94 while Crawford had a .926 save percentage to Emery's .922. Expect Crawford to get the vast majority of the minutes, but Joel Quenneville hasn't ruled out playing both. The past few seasons, the goaltending was the big missing piece, but it looks like they have it figured out.
The Wild rely heavily on just one man, Niklas Backstrom. He's a veteran and been around the block a few times, but he didn't have a great season, particularly as it came to a close. His .909 save percentage was the second lowest of his career. If the Wild are going to stand a chance, they're going to need the very best from Backstrom.
If there is something the Blackhawks don't do incredibly well, it's score on the power play. They converted on just 16.7 percent of chances this season, 19th in the league. However, the PK was much better, 87.2 percent. They are tough to beat even on the man advantage.
Like most every other stat, the Wild are just middle of the road on both sides of the special teams, ranking 16th in the league on the power play and 18th on the PK.
Neither team seems to draw a lot of penalties, and they both are very good at staying out of the box (Minnesota had the fewest times short-handed, Chicago the fourth-fewest). So, special teams could very well have little impact on this series.