For the third straight year, the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will faceoff in the NHL playoffs, as the Wild looking to prove the third time is the charm and beat the Blackhawks for the first time. As much as the two teams’ core nuclei have stayed the same, there have been enough changes, especially by the Wild, to believe this matchup will be different than the last two that saw the Hawks prevail in five and six games respectively.
Minneapolis and Chicago are both phenomenal American hockey cities represented by arguably the two best American born players in the game. Superstar Patrick Kane returned from a major collarbone injury in time to lead the Hawks over the Nashville Predators, while the Wild’s Zach Parise had a series to remember against the St. Louis Blues. As much as both teams rely upon their depth to win games, it begins and ends with the two U.S. Olympians. I fully expect each of the wingers to average better than a point per game in the series, despite seeing the other team’s best defensive unit seemingly every shift.
In previous years it was the Wild who had a revolving door in net, going through such truly great netminders as Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Ilya Bryzgalov. This year, however, midseason acquisition Devan Dubnyk is the man, and his play since coming over from the Arizona Coyotes turned around the Wild’s season as well as his career, earning him a Vezina trophy nomination. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, had to pull former Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford in favor of upstart Scott Darling before reinserting Crawford in Game 6 against Nashville after Darling struggled. Joel Quenneville is going back to Crawford for Game 1, but given how the first round went, he may be on a short leash.
Ryan Suter and Duncan Keith are almost mirror images of each other as they both play nearly 30 minutes per game in all situations. After the way he played in Chicago’s closeout Game 6 win, I see no reason why Keith can’t keep up his almost-superhuman level of play to pace the Hawks. On the flip side, after going through a difficult year off the ice, Suter’s game is peaking at the right time. If there is any player up to the challenge of shutting down Chicago’s top forwards, it’s the former Wisconsin Badger.
Despite their respective successes, both the Blackhawks and Wild are needing more from their more recent big-name additions. The Hawks gave up a first-round pick and prospect to land Antoine Vermette who was scratched for two games in the first round against Nashville and produced only a lone goal in the four games he did play. On Minnesota’s side, they showed former University of Minnesota star Thomas Vanek the money last summer and saw him have one of the worst seasons of his career. The playoffs haven’t been much better, as the Austrian posted two assists in the team’s win over the Blues. Both Vermette and Vanek will be looking to redeem themselves with a spot in the Conference Finals on the line.
I fully expect this to be the best series of the playoffs with all the best facets of playoff hockey — overtimes, big hits, clutch saves and frantic finishes — being on display all series long. It’s tough to pick against a team led by Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, but there’s a feeling around the league that this is Minnesota’s year. The Wild have rebounded after an awful start to the season and will be looking to keep this run going into the Western Conference Finals. Wild win in seven games.