Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - Chicago vs. Minnesota
By Michael Rushton, NHL Contributing Editor
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 46-21-15 (3rd Place - Central)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated St. Louis 4-2 in conference quarterfinals
(SportsNetwork.com) - For a little while, the Chicago Blackhawks' quest to repeat as NHL champions appeared as if it was going to come to an end with a first-round exit.
Then the Blackhawks reminded everyone just whey they are coming off their second Stanley Cup in four years.
It looked as if Chicago's inability to claim home-ice advantage in its quarterfinals matchup with the St. Louis Blues would be the difference, as the Blackhawks lost a pair of overtime decisions to begin the set. That included a triple-overtime setback in Game 1 at Scottrade Center and the fact that the 'Hawks followed up with another 4-3 overtime setback in Game 2 could have left the club with slumped shoulders going back to the Windy City.
Instead of rolling over, the Blackhawks got a 34-save shutout from Corey Crawford to win Game 3 before Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews potted back-to- back overtime-winning goals in Games 4 and 5. Toews then started a four-goal barrage in the third period of Game 6's series-clinching 5-1 win.
Toews showed why he wears the captain's "C" on his jersey as all three of his goals in the series were game-winners and he matched defenseman and Norris Trophy nominee Duncan Keith for the club lead with seven points.
Toews was one of six multi-goal scorers for the Blackhawks in the series, with Kane also potting three goals. Keith and fellow defenseman Brent Seabrook added two goals and Seabrook finished with six points despite missing three games due to suspension for a hit to the head in Game 2.
Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell added two goals, and Bickell, a postseason hero a year ago, by far led the club with 35 hits.
Chicago showed off its depth as it won the series despite Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa netting just one goal each. Further proving the point was forward Kris Versteeg getting made a healthy scratch in Game 6 in favor of 22-year-old rookie Joakim Nordstrom.
As expected, the duo of Keith and Seabrook logged a ton of minutes. Keith was on the ice for nearly 30 minutes a game, while Seabrook averaged 27 minutes and 41 seconds of ice time. He'll need to maintain his discipline in Round 2.
Niklas Hjalmarsson had a bit of a rough series despite averaging 27:41 of ice time as he finished a minus-5. Only Nick Leddy joined Hjalmarsson as Blackhawks blueliners to have a negative rating.
Still, Chicago had the best penalty kill percentage coming out of the first round, limiting St. Louis to two goals on 29 chances.
Crawford, meanwhile, settled down after a rough start to keep the Blackhawks' chances of becoming the first repeat champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings alive.
Rocked for eight goals in the two losses, Crawford followed up his third career postseason shutout by yielding just six goals on 98 shots over the final three games. He ended the series with a 2.03 goals against average and .926 save percentage.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 43-27-12 (1st wild card, West)
2014 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Colorado 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
The Minnesota Wild are coming off their first playoff series victory since 2003.
It was not in the slightest an easy accomplishment.
The Wild played from behind seemingly the whole time during their quarterfinals matchup with the Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche as a road team did not win a game in the series until Minnesota's 5-4 victory in Game 7.
In that contest, the Wild overcame four one-goal deficits, getting a game- tying goal with 2:27 left in regulation before Nino Niederreiter's tally 5:02 into overtime.
Niederreiter's second goal of the game capped the latest comeback of the series for the Wild. They trailed 2-0 in the series after losing the first two on the road and then were behind 3-2 ahead of a Game 6 victory.
Rookie netminder Darcy Kuemper was seen as the savior at the early portion of the series, relieving Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 and going perfect with 14 saves. He then allowed just one goal in total in back-to-back home victories, including a defensive 22-save gem in Game 3.
Like the rest of Minnesota's roster, Kuemper showed an ability to bounce back, following up a Game 5 defeat with a 21-save effort in the next game to extend the series.
However, Kuemper was forced to exit Game 7 after 51 minutes of action due to an unknown injury and Bryzgalov had to make just one save in 13 minutes and 15 seconds of relief before Niederreiter's goal.
The injury could leave Bryzgalov as the starter for at least Game 1 of this series and he posted just a 4.25 goals against average and .826 save percentage in his three games that totaled 112:41 of ice time.
Minnesota has made it to the playoffs in both seasons since signing forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to monster contracts and both were solid in Round 1.
Parise had three goals and seven assists, tying him with three other players -- two of those on the Avalanche -- for the postseason lead in points. Mikko Koivu was second on the club with six points off a goal and five helpers.
Suter, meanwhile, averaged 29:47 of ice time and had a goal with three assists to lead Wild defensemen in points.
Thirteen different skaters scored a goal for the Wild against the Avalanche, with Charlie Coyle matching Parise for the team lead with three. Youngsters Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund added two each along with veteran Kyle Brodziak, while blueliners Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella also scored twice.
Minnesota will hope to get more out of Jason Pominville in this series, with the center notching a goal and four assists along with a minus-1 rating, but forward Dany Heatley had a bit of a surprise surge with a goal and four helpers while going plus-5.
Heatley was coming off a regular season in which he found himself a healthy scratch towards the end of the campaign while recording just 12 goals and 28 points in 76 games.
Like Chicago, Minnesota was middle-of-the-road on the power play, but had a strong penalty kill in the series, finishing at 88.0 percent (22-of-25) and seeing Scandella score shorthanded.
The Wild were the Blackhawks' first victim in their march to the Cup last year. Chicago knocked Minnesota out of the first round in five games, losing only Game 3 on the road and holding a 17-7 edge in scoring.
That was the first playoff meeting between these clubs, but the Wild can lean on the fact they went 3-1-1 versus the Blackhawks this season, splitting two games in Chicago.
Kuemper won his only start versus Chicago this season, stopping 33-of-34 shots faced at home in January, while Bryzgalov took a shootout loss in Chicago.
Bryzgalov is 8-6-5 with a 2.51 GAA lifetime versus the Blackhawks.
Crawford, meanwhile, went 2-2-0 with a 2.98 GAA in four games versus the Wild this season.
Kane had three goals and two assists versus the Wild in 2013-14, while Leddy notched five assists and six points. Toews, though, was held to just a pair of assists.
The Wild may in fact see Pominville break out in this series as he had four goals and an assist in the season series with the 'Hawks. Parise added two goals, while Suter had three assists and Granlund four helpers.
Minnesota proved to be a resilient bunch in the first round, but Chicago really hit its stride after falling down 2-0. The Blackhawks were physical, got timely and clutch scoring and rode excellent goaltending to advance.
The Wild showed scoring depth in the first round, but they aren't known to shoot the lights out either. And with Kuemper dealing with an unknown injury, Minnesota appears destined to fall into another hole, one it won't be able to get out of this time.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 5
05/01 14:57:05 ET