The Norris Division may be long gone, but it seems that the Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-15) and Minnesota Wild (43-27-12) are creating a whole new rivalry in the Central Division, with their second playoff meeting in as many years.
The Blackhawks took the Wild in five games on the way to the Stanley Cup last spring, but this time around, the Wild look considerably improved, after an impressive first-round victory.
#3 Chicago Blackhawks vs #4 Minnesota Wild
Season Series: Minnesota 3-1-1
You can view the series schedule here.
The Blackhawks pulled off an impressive comeback in their first-round victory over the St. Louis Blues, winning four straight games after dropping the first two meetings of the series, to win at home in Game Six.
Offensively, the Blackhawks were led by Jonathan Toews, who scored three of Chicago’s four game-winning goals in the first round. Bryan Bickell‘s inclusion on the first line was something that killed the Wild in last year’s match-up, and he looks to be heating up again, with two goals in his past three games. Patrick Kane is a handful for any opposing defenders, and is a point-per-game player so far in this post-season.
Defensively, the Wild’s offense will have to find a way past top guns Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. Keith, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, had a four-point night in the Blackhawks’ game six win, and was a +5 in their first-round series. Seabrook was suspended for three of six games in the first round after a hit on David Backes, forcing Keith to play irregularly high minutes, but he returned for Game Six. Seabrook still managed 6 points in three games, in part to the Blackhawks’ 5-1 romp in the final game.
As far as playoff experience goes, the Blackhawks have an unprecedented 21 former Stanley Cup champions on their roster.
Backstop: Corey Crawford was in goal for all six games of the first-round series, averaging a .935% save percentage, and 1.98 GAA. Antti Raanta is the Blackhawks back-up, but does not have a game of NHL playoff experience to his credit.
X-Factor: Team discipline. The Blackhawks, not notably a physical team, were among the most penalized clubs in the first-round, and a stellar penalty-kill bailed them out on several occasions. Will the penalty-kill be the workhorse again, or can the Blackhawks stay out of the box?
The Wild pulled off the only ‘upset’ of the first round, defeating the Colorado Avalanche in Game Seven overtime. A combination of stellar goaltending and team play kept them with the Central Division champions all series long, and Minnesota walked out of the Pepsi Center in Denver with the series win after a great come-back effort in Game Seven.
Zach Parise enters the series as the hottest player, with 10 points in seven games against the Avalanche. Captain Mikko Koivu‘s leadership was demonstrated on-ice with six points, while young guns in Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund ranked third with five points in the series. Dany Heatley made an impact with five points, after being a healthy scratch in some of the Wild’s last games of the regular season, and is now on the first power-play unit.
Ryan Suter, a Norris finalist himself last season, is the Wilds’ defensive leader with 203 minutes played in the first round. In fact, the next closest player (Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings) is over a period behind, at 185 minutes. Suter will be out with Jonas Brodin on the Wilds’ top pair, while the likes of Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard will play the clubs’ other big minutes.
Backstop: Darcy Kuemper played the majority of the Wilds’ first-round series, but after suffering an injury in the final minutes of Game Seven, Ilya Bryzgalov will get the call for the beginning of the series. Bryzgalov was credited with the win in Game Seven, and made 1 save in the effort, He had lost two games in the series before that, in one of which he was pulled.
X-Factor: Depth, but in a wacky way. The Wild need more production from Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson, after players like Coyle and Granlund shone in round one. Minnesota will need all hands on deck if they want to make this series go the distance.
Ex-Jets: Dany Heatley (2001-2004)
Prediction Sure To Go Wrong:
The Blackhawks did it before, and in my mind, they’ll do it again. The Wild have improved tenfold since being easily ousted in 2013, but I think it will be the same story, with the Blackhawks winning quickly. Blackhawks take the series in five games, with Nick Leddy scoring the series-clinching goal.
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