The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will kick off the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday night. Chicago, who won the President’s Trophy this season for leading the league in points, spent the majority of the season atop the standings. However, eighth-seeded Minnesota represents an intriguing matchup for the Western Conference’s top dogs.
These two organizations have never before met in the postseason. Still, their budding rivalry didn’t disappoint one bit during the 2013 regular season. Chicago won two of the three meetings outright, by scores of 5-3 and 1-0. Minnesota won the other game 3-2, by way of the shootout, keeping the scoring margin between the two clubs at just a two goal differential over the three contests. The Blackhawks and Wild last met each other on April 9, after which I tweeted both my disappointment that they had fewer scheduled matchups this season as non-divisional opponents, as well as the hope that they would meet each other in the postseason.
Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010. Because of their salary cap situation, however, that squad was stripped down before the banner was even raised. After taking a bit of a step back in the seasons following Patrick Kane’s overtime Cup-clinching goal, the Blackhawks again look like the best team on the planet.
All the Blackhawks did this season en route to their President’s Trophy was to go 36-7-5. Shortened season or not, Chicago grinding through the entire first half of the season without a single regulation loss (21-0-3) is one of the most impressive runs that any of us will ever see.
Chicago has now qualified for the last five postseasons. Throughout those seasons, their high-end talent has been as good, or better, than any other team in the field. If their depth was a weakness in recent seasons, this year it might be as strong as ever. Although Kane and Captain Jonathan Toews both found themselves in the MVP discussions throughout this season, the Blackhawks actually had fourteen players score game-winning goals.
Speaking of depth, one of Chicago’s greatest strengths has been their goaltending tandem. Both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have been amongst the best, most reliable goaltenders in the league this season. Each netminder posted a 1.94 GAA, with Crawford’s .926 save percentage edging out Emery’s save percentage of .922. Each of them also had three shutouts on the season, though Crawford made nine more appearances.
With such similar numbers, Head Coach Joel Quenneville seemed ready to alternate between the two until the hot hand emerged. With Emery not quite at 100% health, Crawford looks to have the first crack at the job in this series.
The Blackhawks ranked second in the league in goals scored and first in goals against. They are as healthy as can be this time of year and are able to roll four solid lines. Not to mention, Chicago wins nearly 90% of their games when scoring first. The ‘Hawks would give any team a difficult time.
Unlike their perennially strong opponents, this is Minnesota’s first playoff appearance since 2008. The Wild undoubtedly made the biggest offseason splash by signing unrestricted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both Americans, to identical contracts on America’s Independence Day. While most pundits will agree that these moves bode well for the future of the club, it made sense that the team would suffer some hiccups in a season that saw just a brief training camp following the lockout.
After some fits and starts, Minnesota skated to a 26-19-3 record. Suter didn’t immediately adjust to his new team, but wouldn’t be discouraged from bouncing back to record 32 points in 48 games from the back end. Now playing the brand of hockey that we’ve become accustomed to seeing Suter play, look for the powerplay quarterback to play upwards of thirty minutes a night.
Parise, along with Captain Mikko Koivu, will be relied on heavily for both production and leadership. With team highs in goals (18) and points (38) this season, Parise will need to set the tone in all areas of the ice and in the locker room. Lacking both the high-end talent and the secondary scoring of Chicago, the Wild will need to play a disciplined game in all three zones. Offensively, Koivu was second on the team with 37 points. Dany Heatley put up 11 goals and 21 points in 36 games, but will be out indefinitely (likely the entire playoffs) with a shoulder injury.
Unlike Chicago’s two-goaltender tandem, Niklas Backstrom laid claim to the crease in 42 of Minnesota’s 48 games this season. Now 35 years old, the Finnish netminder is still capable of stealing a game or two. His 2.48 GAA and .909 save percentage seem rather pedestrian in comparison to those of his counterparts’, but Minnesota will need Backstrom to outduel whoever he faces across the ice if they look to have a chance to upset Chicago.
Though the beginning of the second season is very much a fresh start in many players’ minds, it is worth noting that Minnesota was one of just three teams in the postseason to finish out its regular season schedule with a losing record over their final ten games. Over a larger sample size, Minnesota finds themselves the only playoff team to have allowed more goals (127) than goals scored (122) over the course of the season.
If the Blackhawks were looking for a new foe to stand in when their longtime division rival Detroit Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference next season, they may have found one with the Wild. Fans of the old Blackhawks—North Stars rivalry must be feeling pretty nostalgic these days.
However, this just isn’t the year that will produce a long series. The Blackhawks are at the top of the league and the Wild are at least a year or two away. While the individual contests may end up being tight, hard-fought battles, I see Chicago taking care of business. Blackhawks in five.
Agree with my prediction? Disagree? Let me know @BostonNumber9 or our team @TMMotS. For team-specific coverage of this series, head over to BlackhawkUp.com or GonePuckWild.com. Be sure to check back often to TooManyMenOnTheSite.com for coverage of each and every series throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.