Central Division Final
(C3) Chicago Blackhawks vs (WC1) Minnesota Wild
Season series: Wild won 3-1-1
They have a history: The two sides got to know each other well this season, competing in the same division for the first time. The games weren’t too chippy, but things should heat up when bodies start flying on the forecheck. Last spring, Chicago and Minnesota met in the playoffs’ first round, with the Blackhawks outclassing their opponent en route to a five-game series win. The Wild are a much better team this time around.
For the Blackhawks to win: They need to build off the momentum they generated in their hard-fought six-game series with the St. Louis Blues. Joel Quenneville’s squad was playing without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at the end of the regular season, so it took the players a few games to find their rhythm. Well, they found it.
The Colorado Avalanche gave the Wild trouble when their playmakers were given space in open ice. This is an area in which the Blackhawks can thrive, however Chicago is also a force when its forawards gets their cycle game going down low.
If the Blackhawks can dictate the pace and stay busier than the Wild they’ll be in good shape. In the first round, the Blackhawks won every game in which they outshot their opponent, while the Wild were win-less when they were outshot.
With a strong combination of world-class skill and the grit necessary to go deep, the defending champs know how to get it done in the post-season.
Best Blackhawks storyline: Jonathan Toews must have a really strong back and legs because he is carrying his team. The two-time Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medallist is proving again that he’s one of the best leaders in sports and performs best when the stakes are high. If he continues to play the way he did in the first round, this Conn Smythe frontrunner should lead his team through the West.
Leading playoff scorer: Jonathan Toews, seven points (three goals, four assists)
Game 1 starter: Corey Crawford, 4-2, 1.98 goals-against average, .935 save percentage
For the Wild to win: Mike Yeo’s group plays a solid team system, and the Wild must keep it up in order to take the pressure off its goalies. Darcy Kuemper is dealing with the dreaded post-season “upper-body injury,” so Minnesota might have to rely on the not-always-reliable Ilya Bryzgalov.
Luckily for Wild fans, leaders like Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu have produced the way they’re expected to, while Ryan Suter is being his usual beastly self on the blue line. On top of that, Charlie Coyle, Kyle Brodziak, Mikael Granlund and Jared Spurgeon have stepped up in a big way.
Matt Moulson is a difference maker, and he must be better. The rental forward registered just two points against the Avalanche, and that’s not good enough for a pending UFA who cost the team Torrey Mitchell and two second-round picks at the deadline.
Even though they’re the heavy underdogs, Minnesota outplayed Chicago in the regular season. The way the Wild remind the Blackhawks of that is by playing with the same confidence and poise they showed when they were down by a goal late in the third in Game 7 against the Avalanche.
Best Wild storyline: When Wild ownership opened its chequebook to lock up Parise and Suter to long-term deals, this is the type of payoff Craig Leipold’s group was hoping for. There is a real sense of optimism around this franchise right now, and that’s great for the NHL because Minnesota is one of the best hockey markets in the United States. A strong showing against the defending champs will only build momentum in the state.
Leading scorer: Zach Parise, 10 points (three goals, seven assists)
Game 1 starter: Unconfirmed. If healthy, Darcy Kuemper (3-1, 2.03 goals-against average, .913 save percentage) should get the nod. If not, Ilya Bryzgalov (1-2, 4.25 goals-against average, .826 save percentage) will be in the crease.
Matchup to watch: Suter against the big guns of Chicago, which most likely means the Toews line on virtually every shift. The Wild held the Blackhawks captain to just two points and a minus-1 rating in four games against them in the regular season. If they can shut down No. 19, the Wild must just have a chance.
Big question: Can the Blackhawks continue to progress the way they did throughout the first round? Their stars are finally healthy, and the team seams to be peaking at the right time.
Best bet: Blackhawks in five.