First-round preview: Hawks-Wild
In spite of the Chicago Blackhawks' status as runaway winners of the Western Conference and their place as Presidents' Trophy winners as top team in the NHL, the Western Conference is fraught with potential trap doors.
The lone exception to the trap-door theory might be the Minnesota Wild, who limped into the playoffs after being clobbered at home in the second-to-last game of the regular season by lowly Edmonton and needing a victory over Columbus in the season finale to earn their first playoff berth in five seasons. At the top of the Wild's website on Sunday was a big headline that read, "We're In!" They should have included in parentheses "Whew!"
On paper, which is where these playoff previews begin, this is likely the most favorable matchup for the Blackhawks among the three possibilities heading into the final days of the regular season, with Detroit finally emerging as the seventh seed and Columbus falling short and finishing ninth despite a valiant effort. As a number of NHL executives told ESPN.com following the conclusion of the regular season, the first round is always the most difficult to predict, but the Blackhawks are simply too deep for Minnesota. At least on paper.
1. Who has the better focus?
The Jack Adams trophy awarded to coach of the year generally goes to a team that overachieves, but Chicago coach Joel Quenneville and his staff deserve kudos for keeping their team on track from beginning to end after starting the season with a record-setting 24-game point streak. They did drop a couple of games in the final week of the regular season, but it's hard to infer any lack of focus from those minor missteps. This is a team that lost just seven times in regulation over the 48-game, lockout-shortened season. There is enough veteran leadership from captain Jonathan Toews, former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and his longtime defense partner, Brent Seabrook, to keep the energy level at an optimum level for the start of the playoffs. Starting at home, where they were 18-3-3, will help jump things up a notch if there was any concern at all about the team having settled into some sort of sense of self-satisfaction. Now, the Wild are another story mindset-wise, having squeaked into the postseason on the last night of the season. There are two ways to look at it: Either the Wild, having avoided a second straight season of colossal letdowns, enjoy the ride and play with less anxiety and more joyful abandon, thus making them more dangerous. Or they're still consumed by their near-disaster and the specter of playing an overwhelming favorite and thus crumble quickly. Certainly, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who signed identical 13-year deals worth $98 million apiece last summer, will be counted on to keep the Wild on track, even if the track points to a steep grade.
2. Pad posse under pressure
The Wild are going to need Niklas Backstrom to be at his best, even though he struggled down the stretch, allowing at least three goals in five of his last seven starts. Still, the former William Jennings Trophy winner did end up tied for first in the NHL with 24 wins. He started 41 of his 42 appearances, making him among the busiest of NHL goaltenders. One NHL executive suggested that the Wild might have burned out the 35-year-old Helsinki native while pushing to get into the playoffs. If that's what happened, that's bad news because Chicago will ice the most potent offense in the Western Conference -- second in the NHL to Pittsburgh -- and there really is no Plan B in goal for the Wild. As for the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery combined to lead the NHL in goals allowed, giving up just 2.02 goals per game. Crawford is expected to be the Game 1 starter and it will be interesting to see how he responds to the high expectations -- for both him and the entire team -- after he was less than stellar in a first-round playoff loss to Phoenix last season, during which the Blackhawks outplayed the Coyotes for long stretches. Crawford shouldn't lack for confidence though, as he has just one regulation loss in his last 10 outings. As for Emery, who was dealing with what is believed to be a minor injury down the stretch and is day-to-day, the Blackhawks have shown complete comfort with the veteran netminder in net as witnessed by his 17-1-0 record.
3. Hawks have great depth
There are lots of reasons the Blackhawks are going to be a handful for the Wild -- and for anyone else who happens along their path this playoff year -- but it is the dynamic of the forwards that has become emblematic of the team's turnaround in the past six or seven seasons. Kane, the former first overall draft pick and rookie of the year, turned in a stellar performance with 23 goals, tied with Toews for the team lead and tied for fifth in the league. Kane was also tied for fifth in points with 55 after questions were raised about his focus and dedication to being an elite player since the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup win in 2010. They are different players, to be sure, but Kane's increased emphasis on scoring has made him among the most dangerous forwards in the NHL and is reminiscent of Sidney Crosby when Crosby worked to make himself a more proficient scorer. Toews, of course, is better-rounded and is a top candidate for the Frank J. Selke Award as the top two-way forward in the game. Both Kane and Toews will also figure prominently in Hart Trophy voting as the league's MVP. The duo's high level of production provides a dilemma for Mike Yeo and the Wild coaching staff. If Yeo matches with Ryan Suter and rookie Jonas Brodin against Toews, Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad, what does he do against Kane and Patrick Sharp? It's not a particularly palatable decision.
4. Can the Wild bring the grind?
One prevailing thought on how to beat the Blackhawks is to try to grind them down. We saw a bit of that in a testy win by Vancouver late in the regular season, when the Canucks used a grinding, physical style to come away with a 3-1 victory. The Blackhawks aren't the biggest team in the world, and it would seem the Wild's best hope for a monumental upset would be to pressure on the forecheck as much as possible and try to make life miserable for Crawford by crowding the crease. The Wild, who ranked 22nd in goals per game, second lowest among Western Conference playoff teams, would like to put as many pucks on net to try to create dirty goal opportunities. One GM told ESPN.com he thought the games would be close and that this would be a low-scoring series. That is going to be essential if the Wild are going to stay in the upset hunt.
5. Don't choke, rook
Both teams have received stellar if unexpected production from some young guns. Saad has wormed his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 27 points, fifth among rookies. One GM described him as a mini-Hossa, which is high praise and speaks to Saad's ability to use his size and considerable skill to control the flow of games at both ends of the ice. On the Wild side of the ice, there is a lot more pressure on youngsters Charlie Coyle, who played better as the season wore on and finished with eight goals and 14 points, and Brodin, the 19-year-old who has been paired with Norris Trophy hopeful Suter for much of the latter part of the season. Coyle will have to continue to produce offensively, especially if Jason Pominville -- acquired at the trade deadline from Buffalo but knocked out of the lineup with a shot to the head courtesy of Kings captain Dustin Brown -- isn't available. Brodin, who led all rookies in total ice time per game at 23:12, is going to get a trial by fire in his first playoff experience. His ability to stay composed and not turn the puck over to the skilled Blackhawks forwards will be a key factor in whether the Wild can keep the series close.
• The Blackhawks simply have too much for the Wild to corral over a seven-game series. And we're not completely sold that Backstrom is where he needs to be in order to keep the Wild close. Blackhawks in 5
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