Rivalries are said to be made in the playoffs. If the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild are to rekindle a geographical rivalry that has been mostly dormant since the North Stars moved to Dallas, they are well on their way. After meeting in the first round last year, the two foes will meet with a trip to the Western Conference finals on the line this time around. The Blackhawks dispatched the Wild in five games to kick off their run to the Stanley Cup in 2013.
Now the Wild come back with a series win under their belts, a dramatic one, and probably a lot more confidence than they had a year ago. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, remain a battle-tested opponent with a core that has won the Stanley Cup twice and recently engineered a series comeback against the St. Louis Blues, a team many believed to be a strong Cup contender.
While the Wild handled themselves as well as could have been expected against the Central Division's top regular-season team, they face a much tougher challenge in Round 2. In the last series, the Wild were weirdly the more experienced team when it came to postseason play. That table just got flipped dramatically.
Minnesota does have a little bit of added confidence having owned the season series between the two clubs with a 3-1-1 record over the Blackhawks in the newfangled Central. That's little more than a feather in the Wild's cap at this point as regular-season history tends to get erased in the playoffs, but it's a nice feather to have.
The Blackhawks got a little extra rest, which could be helpful early in the series. They also get home ice, which they wouldn't have had if the Wild failed to dispatch the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. The defending champs won all three games at home in their first-round series against the Blues. The Wild won just one of their road tilts against the Avalanche, though the all-important Game 7 win came in Denver.
Don't count out the Wild, a team with much more experience than it had last year and probably a little more scoring depth. It's going to be hard to get past the budding dynasty that is the Blackhawks, but Minnesota showed in the last series it will fight to the bitter end.
Hopefully this is another early chapter in a future heated rivalry.
CHI Offense vs. MIN Defense
The Wild successfully limited Colorado's high-speed offense to a an average of about 25 shots per game in their seven-game series. The Avalanche, however, were among the league's worst possession teams despite their success. The Blackhawks, conversely, were one of the league's best when it came to possessing the puck and scoring a lot of goals.
The Blackhawks are also much deeper than the Avalanche, giving the Wild too many weapons to stop. It also puts a lot more strain on Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who will have to eat a lot of the toughest matchups, of which there are probably too many for him to cover.
More bad news for the Wild is that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are already firing on all cylinders. Toews had seven points vs. the Blues, while Kane had six. Both have three goals so far. Younger forwards Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad aren't far behind with four points apiece, while you also have to figure Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp will produce more after being held to just three points collectively in the opening round.
While the Wild showed they could slow down a high-speed transition offense, the Blackhawks have more players that can play that style to a high degree of success. Additionally, Chicago's defensemen are much better at getting the puck up ice and getting involved in the offensive attack than Colorado's. Duncan Keith has seven points while Brent Seabrook has six in just three games.
It's going to be a tall order for Suter and company, which is why the edge goes to Chicago.
MIN Offense vs. CHI Defense
The Wild averaged 3.14 goals per game in their first series, which has to be encouraging. They did that against a potential Vezina Trophy winner after a regular season in which the Wild ranked 24th in goals per game at 2.43.
Zach Parise is really going well right now with 10 points in the playoffs, tied for the postseason lead. The veteran has 54 points in 73 career postseason games and is off to one of the best starts he has had in the playoffs. He gives the Blackhawks a player to key on, but Parise is not easily shut down.
The good news for Parise is that he shouldn't have to do it all himself.
What makes the Wild particularly interesting is the performance of their young forwards. Mikael Granlund scored one of the biggest and best goals of the postseason with his Game 3 overtime winner. He has five points, as does Charlie Coyle, who is really coming into his own with three goals this postseason. Then there's the Game 7 hero, Nino Niederreiter, who has four points including the pair of goals he scored to end Colorado's season.
Put all of that together and you have a much better Wild offense than last season. That said, they're going against a Chicago Blackhawks defense that is entirely intact from their 2013 Stanley Cup run. The top four of Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya is among the best in the league.
Hjalmarsson and Oduya play the toughest minutes, often drawing top lines and successfully keeping them tamped down. That brings Keith and Seabrook to handle some offensive responsibilities while being no pushovers in their own zone. Even Chicago's third pairing of Michal Rozsival and Nick Leddy can do damage at both ends.
The Blackhawks' experience and ability to keep some of St. Louis' top players off the scoresheet in the last round suggests they're more than capable of shutting down an offense that really could sputter at any moment, even after a series where it really came alive.
The Wild won't be able to own the puck like they did against Colorado and that will be a big difference. Slight edge to Chicago here.
Considering the Wild's goaltending situation is in flux after Darcy Kuemper left Game 7 with an apparent injury and the Blackhawks have a Stanley Cup-winning goalie coming off a terrific first-round performance, this seems to be an easy edge for the Blackhawks.
Corey Crawford, who very well could have been postseason MVP for Chicago last June even though Patrick Kane got the Conn Smythe, had a .935 save percentage in the first round series against the Blues. That's ahead of the .932 mark he put up last postseason en route to the Stanley Cup.
The Wild got some great play out of Kuemper, but if he is unable to go, they likely have to turn to Ilya Bryzgalov, who lost his starting job a game and a half into the series with Colorado. His .826 save percentage isn't going to inspire a lot of confidence, is it? That .909 mark in the regular season probably won't either.
The Wild apparently loaded Josh Harding's equipment for the trip to Chicago, but it's hard to imagine he'll be able to make an impact in the series if he even can play at all.
With so much uncertainty at the most important position in the postseason, the Wild appear to be at a major disadvantage here.
Neither team has an inspiring power play, as neither was much of a factor when it came to the advantage in the first round. Both were pretty darn good on the penalty kill, however. Chicago thwarted 91 percent of St. Louis' power plays in that opening-round series, while the Wild killed 88 percent of Colorado's advantages.
Both teams scored three power-play goals in their opening-round series, with the Wild converting on just 14.3 percent of their chances, while the Blackhawks converted 15 percent.
Looking at the larger picture, both teams had better power plays clicking in the regular season, while both teams were in the lower half of the league when it came to penalty killing.
This is probably the area in which these two teams are closest on paper. Neither has gotten much consistency out of their special teams all season, which is where there is room for concern. Whichever team -- if either can -- gets hot on the power play in this series, it could be a real difference maker.
|(3) Chicago Blackhawks vs.|
(4) Minnesota Wild
|Fri May 2||9:30 ET||Chicago||NBCSN, TSN|
|Sun May 4||3 ET||Chicago||NBC, TSN|
|Tue May 6||9 ET||St. Paul||CNBC, TSN|
|Fri May 9||TBD||St. Paul||TBD, TSN|
|*Sun May 11||TBD||Chicago||TBD, TSN|
|*Tue May 13||TBD||St. Paul||TBD, TSN|
|*Thu May 15||TBD||Chicago||TBD, TSN|
|* if necessary|