By Craig D. Schroepfer
As you know by now, the Minnesota Wild won their first playoff series in 11 years, defeating the Colorado Avalanche in seven games to move on to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The next opponent for Minnesota is the defending Stanley Cup Champion: the Chicago Blackhawks.
While taking on the defending champs may look like a tall order, it also gives the Wild a chance to avenge the first round loss to the Blackhawks last spring.
Does Minnesota have a chance to beat Chicago? Or will the Blackhawks be too much to overcome? Let’s go to the tale of the tape.
Minnesota was 3-1-1 in five games this season versus Chicago
The best forward in the playoffs for Minnesota has been Zach Parise. Parise has 10 points (3G, 7A) in the postseason which is tied for first among all players.
A pleasant surprise for the Wild is the development of young forwards Charlie Coyle (3G, 2A), Mikael Granlund (2G, 3A) and Nino Niederreiter (2G, 2A). The trio has developed nicely during the season and each player made an impact in the first round against Colorado. Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson all had one goal each in the series against the Avalanche. More will be needed from them against Chicago.
The Blackhawks are led by the dynamic duo of Jonathan Toews (3G, 4A) and Patrick Kane (3G, 3A). The three goals scored by Toews ended up being game winners in the series against St. Louis. The other game winning goal in that series went to Kane who scored the overtime winner in Game 4.
Last year’s breakout star of the playoffs, Bryan Bickell, has three points (2G, 1A) for the Blackhawks while Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp each have one goal in the post-season. I expect the offensive production of Hossa and Sharp to improve in this series.
Chicago is deeper than Minnesota at forward. If Coyle, Granlund, and Neiderreiter continue to play like they did in the first round, it will help the Wild keep pace. Until then I give the edge here to the Blackhawks.
Minnesota is led by Ryan Suter who is averaging nearly 30 minutes a game on the ice (29:47) Suter has one goal and three assists in the playoffs and a plus/minus rating of -1. Suter, along with Jonas Brodin (0G, 2A) will be counted on to shutdown the Toews line when they are on the ice.
The second pairing of defensemen for Minnesota will be Jared Spurgeon (2G, 1A) and Marco Scandella (2G, 1A). Spurgeon has been very Jekyll and Hyde this season for the Wild. When he is good, Spurgeon can move the puck and provide some offense from the blueline. Spurgeon has also been sloppy with the puck during the season leading to turnovers and scoring opportunities for Wild opponents. He has to be able to take better care of the puck against Chicago.
The third pairing on defense for Minnesota is Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser, neither of whom has a point in the playoffs.
The Blackhawks are led on defense by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith, who is a Norris Trophy candidate, is tied for the team lead in points (2G, 5A) a + 5 on the ice and is also averaging nearly 30 minutes of ice time. (29:51) Seabrook, who was suspended for three games in the St. Louis series, has six points (2G, 4A) in three playoff games.
The rest of the defense corps for Chicago consists of Niklas Hjalmarsson (0G, 1A) Johnny Oduya (1G, 2A) Nick Leddy (0G, 1A) and Michal Rozsival (1G, 2A). The offensive production from these four defensemen is low, but I expect that to change in this series.
Chicago gets the edge here. Suter and Keith are so good that you can’t go wrong with either one. After that there is a huge drop-off in talent as the Blackhawks are much deeper and they match up better against the Wild forwards.
The man in net for the Blackhawks is Corey Crawford. Last year Crawford had a save percentage of .932 and a goals against average of 1.84. Through six games this post-season, Crawford’s save percentage is .935 and his GAA is slightly higher at 1.98.
For Minnesota, well we are in the same spot as we were at the start of the Colorado series.
Darcy Kuemper reclaimed the starting spot in goal after relieving Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 against Colorado. Kuemper in the post-season has a save percentage of .913 and a GAA of 2.03. However Kuemper looked woozy after colliding with Suter behind the net, bumping his head against Suter’s hip in the process. Kuemper ended up leaving the game near the end of the third period and was replaced by Bryzgalov who will get the start in Game 1 of the series.
I don’t think of Crawford as an elite goaltender. But with the defensemen playing in front of him, Crawford will never have to steal a series for the Blackhawks, he just has to play well enough to give them a chance to win. I still have my doubts about Bryzgalov in net. If he can steal a game in Chicago that will change my view, but until then I have to go with the goalie who has his name on the cup.
In the series against Colorado, I liked how Mike Yeo was able to match lines with the Avalanche at home and slow down their transition game. Yeo will need to be just as good matching lines against Chicago and not giving the Blackhawks forwards any space with the puck.
Chicago head coach Joel Quennville is one of the best coaches in the NHL. In 17 seasons as a head coach only one of Quennville’s teams has failed to reach the post-season.
I like what Yeo has done with Minnesota, but with two Stanley Cup titles in four seasons to his name, I give the edge here to Quennville and the Blackhawks.
Chicago is ranked ninth on the power play, scoring three times on 20 opportunities. Minnesota is similar, ranked 10th on the power play, scoring three times in 21 opportunities. The Wild however, have allowed two short-handed goals.
The Blackhawks have the best penalty kill in the post-season at 93.1 percent, allowing only two power play goals. Minnesota is fifth on the penalty kill at 88 percent, allowing three power play goals. The Wild do have one short-handed goal to their credit in the playoffs.
Right now I won’t give either team an edge as they are both pretty even with each other on special teams. I imagine this will solve itself throughout the series.
I like Chicago to win this series for one simple reason: They know what it takes to win in the playoffs. Down 2-0 to St. Louis, the veterans on the Blackhawks roster stepped up and took charge, making sure Chicago regained control of the series before closing it out in six games.
Now Wild fans reading this will say wait a minute, Minnesota was down 2-0 before rallying to win the series against Colorado. The difference here is that the Avalanche are a young team without a killer instinct and are learning what it takes to win in the post-season. Chicago has already learned that lesson and has two Stanley Cups in the last four years to show for it.
If Minnesota falls behind 2-0 in this series it could be a repeat of last year where the Wild got one at home before the Blackhawks closed out the series.
I think the Wild are better than they were last year, and I think Minnesota can win two games in this series, but that’s all they will get from Chicago.
Blackhawks in six games.