Few pundits are giving the Minnesota Wild even a passing glance in their first round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks. After all, the Hawks stole the NHL spotlight by going 21-0-3 in their first 24 games, setting the NHL record for consecutive games with a point to start a season. Chicago rode that momentum to a Presidents’ Trophy and an obscene 36-7-5 mark, including the league’s best road record (18-4-2).
The two squads met three times in the regular season.
FIRST MATCHUP: January 30 (MIN wins 3-2 in SO)
After winning its first six games to start the season, Chicago fell behind just 90 seconds in, but two goals in the span of 1:31 knocked Josh Harding out of the game and forced Niklas Backstrom into duty off the bench. Backstrom was solid, stopping 28 Blackhawk offerings.
Corey Crawford was phenomenal at times for the Blackhawks (see his save on Zach Parise in the 5-on-3 for proof), but in the third, Cal Clutterbuck was able to tip a point shot past the netminder to force overtime. When no victor was settled, Parise and Matt Cullen tallied in the shootout to propel the Wild to victory and hand Chicago its first loss.
SECOND MATCHUP: March 5 (CHI wins 5-3)
For the second straight meeting, Minnesota tallied the game’s first goal. However, also for the second straight meeting, Minnesota crumbled after taking the early lead and their goaltender was shelled. This time, it was Backstrom in the line of fire, allowing four goals in the span of 5:43. Hawks rookie Brandon Saad recorded points on three of the four lamp-lighters.
The Wild showed plenty of fight, cutting the lead to 4-3 with back-to-back third period goals from Ryan Suter on a power play and Kyle Brodziak at even strength in a net-mouth scramble.
But as the Hawks did seemingly all year, they squashed their opponents’ hope in rapid succession, as Patrick Kane beat Darcy Kuemper just 1:01 after the Brodziak goal to ice the game for Chicago. The Blackhawks extended their season opening points streak to 23 games with the win.
THIRD MEETING: April 9 (CHI wins 1-0)
The Blackhawks proved why they stood atop the NHL all season in this game. Whereas Chicago used a five-goal explosion to top the Wild in March, this time around, Ray Emery was the steady backstop, stopping all 20 Minnesota attempts.
Worse yet, Backstrom was fantastic for the Wild after getting roughed up in March, stopping 31 shots. However, one monumental defensive zone turnover by Clayton Stoner to Marian Hossa resulted in the game’s lone marker.
Minnesota’s five goals in nine regulation periods and an overtime certainly throw up concerns as they look to become the third 8th seed in the last five Western Conference playoffs to knock off the number one.
The Wild need quite a few things to go their way as the playoffs begin. Heck, they needed a tie-breaking goal from Devin Setoguchi in game 48 just to clinch the eight seed after nearly falling from the top-4 to out of the playoffs in just over a month.
Minnesota Will Win If….
Jason Pominville Stays Healthy & Provides Point Production
The former Buffalo Sabre captain was acquired at the trade deadline to add experience to a franchise that has not seen the playoffs in five years. He may be ready to play in Game 1 Pominville’s playoff career numbers are not bold (12 goals & 16 assists in 45 games), but it’s worth remembering he spent two of those playoff seasons in Buffalo as a secondary scorer behind the likes of Danny Briere, Chris Drury, and Thomas Vanek.
Where Pominville plays and who his linemates will be also come into question. Charlie Coyle has thrived with Parise and Mikko Koivu, so breaking that unit up might not be in coach Mike Yeo’s best interest. In addition, the unit of Setoguchi, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard was at times one of the most prolific lines in the West.
Nevertheless, the former captain enters his fifth postseason thirsty for a Cup, and if he is on the ice, he is an all-situations player that can be inserted anywhere should injuries or lack of chemistry become any kind of factor.
The Wild Can Score First, And Often
With an opponent as daunting as Chicago, strangely, all the pressure rests on the Blackhawks’ shoulders. Twice in the last four years, the West’s number one seed has bowed out to the number eight.
Therefore, the game’s first goal can strike fear in the Madhouse crowd at United Center. If the Wild could turn the trick and score in the first ten minutes as they did in each of the first two meetings between the clubs, then the Wild can relax into their defensive mode. Winning the special teams battle would be huge as well for Minnesota, a team that jumped 11 spots up in terms of power play production from last season to this year.
The Blackhawks can win games in so many ways, as illustrated by the teams’ last two meetings. They led the West in goals for (155) and will take home the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed league-wide (102). However, as the old and tired cliché goes, the slates are wiped clean and up to seven games are all that count.
Niklas Backstrom Excels, With Help From a Young D Corps
The Finnish netminder has had his demons in playoffs’ past, but this season he has hit his stride in various spurts, tying for the NHL lead in goaltending victories with 24.
I noted in a prior post how he might be tired, but the Wild have no other stable options other than the just-returned Josh Harding. Harding did not fare well in his first game in two months, giving up three goals on 12 shots in relief of Backstrom during the Wild’s 6-1 defeat at the hands of Edmonton on April 26.
The Wild feature a blue line that has not seen much in the way of playoff experience. Now more than ever, they will lean on Ryan Suter to be their rock on the back end. Rookie Jonas Brodin has sparkled playing alongside Suter, but the other four defense spots leave a lot of question marks. They certainly need not be offensive stalwarts, but names like Tom Gilbert, Jared Spurgeon, and Clayton Stoner can ill afford to be attached to turnover problems. If that’s the case, Minnesota will dig itself an early grave.