When the 2013 NHL season began, both the Blackhawks and Wild were considered to be two of the more compelling squads in the Western Conference. With so much transition taking place in Detroit, the Hawks appeared to be ready to make a transition of their own, hoping to step up as the undisputed class of the Central Division. Minnesota, meanwhile, made a huge splash in the free agency market, signing both Zack Parise and Ryan Suter to identical $98 million, 13 year contracts. Landing the two biggest free agents available, the Wild simultaneously rejuvenated a fan base that had been growing weary of mediocrity and catapulted themselves back into contention in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
With the two clubs preparing for their first ever playoff matchup, we present a brief look on how each got here and our outlook for the series.
Coming out of yet another lockout, the NHL was once again in need of some good PR; the Blackhawks were happy to oblige. Their record shattering start to the season was rivaled in the sports world only by the Miami Heat’s similar streak pursuing the NBA’s all-time winning streak. There wasn’t much of a letdown when the Hawks streak finally ended at 24 games thanks to the Colorado Avalanche, either. Yes, it did bring about a 12 game stretch in which the Hawks posted a rather pedestrian 6-5-1 record but they followed that up with a seven game winning streak. In the end, the Blackhawks’ remarkable, season long consistency allowed them to coast to the President’s Trophy, outpacing the Pittsburgh Penguins by a comfortable five points.
Such a remarkable season isn’t likely to take place without some incredible individual performances and the Blackhawks were certainly no exception this year. Chicago has two legitimate Hart Trophy candidates in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and, though they may split votes preventing either of them from ultimately winning, the Hawks surely would have enjoyed a lot less success this year without either of them. While Kane paced the club with 55 points, Toews consistently provided the leadership and clutch performances that his club has come to depend on him for. Meanwhile, the biggest question mark for the Blackhawks coming into the season turned into one of the clubs greatest strengths as goaltenders Corey Crawford and Ray Emery combined to win the Jennings Trophy as the duo that surrendered the fewest goals against this year.
So, now, Kane, Toews and the rest of the Blackhawks look to continue their amazing season with another successful postseason run. After all, an early round flame-out would make everything they’ve accomplished this year relatively meaningless. First test: the Minnesota Wild.
The Wild were as streaky as they come this year. At their best, Minnesota rode a seven game winning streak in mid-March to push Vancouver for the Northwest Division lead. Unfortunately for their fans, though, the wheels fell off as the calendar turned to April as the Wild endured a 2-7-0 stretch and finished the last month of the season with a losing record. At their best, Minnesota was consistently beating the likes of the Sharks, Canucks and Kings; at their worst, the Wild were embarrassed by the lowly Oilers in the final home game of the year in which they had an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot.
Despite all the ups and downs of the 2013 season, the good news for the upstart Wild is that their prize free agents appear to be adjusting to their surroundings and, well, excelling in Xcel Energy Center. Though he didn’t put up huge numbers, Zach Parise led the team in scoring with 38 points. Minnesota, however, is more interested in Parise’s character and experience paying dividends for the relatively green Wild in the playoffs. Ryan Suter, meanwhile, struggled to adjust to his new team early in the season but he certainly finished the season with a bang. Anxious to prove he could be a top-tier defenseman without the likes of longtime partner, Shea Weber, Suter turned his game around and is now among the favorites to bring home the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
Now, as the Wild enter the playoffs for the first time in five years, they face the daunting task of trying to take down the league’s top club. With Parise and Suter on board, though, Minnesota is thinking upset.
As THW writer Ryan Smith points out in his series preview, the West’s top seed has bowed out in the first round in two of the past four seasons. Could it happen again this year? It’s not likely but the Wild did play the Hawks tight this season, as they were the first of only three teams to earn two points during Chicago’s record-setting start to the season.
If the Wild are to pull off the ultimate upset, they will have to find a way to slow down the likes of stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Should they pull that off, they still have to worry about Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and a supporting cast of players such as Brandon Sadd and Viktor Stalberg. To be successful, they will rely heavily on Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin.
On the flip side, the Wild will need Zach Parise and his playoff experience to lead the way against a stingy defensive squad led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Minnesota will need Jason Pominville to return from injury ready to contribute if they are to keep pace with the high-flying Hawks.
In net, Niklas Backstrom will surely have to steal a game or two if the Wild are to prove victorious. His 2.48 GAA and .909 save percentage needs to improve to compete with the Jennings Trophy winning duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
As it stands now, The Wild’s greatest advantage could be the pressure that the In the end, though, the Hawks will prove too deep and take the upstart Wild out in 5.
Sean Griffin is a lead writer for the Pittsburgh Penguins at The Hockey Writers. He can be contacted at email@example.com.