They met one year ago in the first-round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Wild goaltender Josh Harding earned his first career postseason win. His story was one of the highlights of the tournament, and truly inspirational.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the series in five-games and rode that momentum all the way to their second Stanley Cup championship since 2010.
This series is a true tale of David and Goliath. The Blackhawks are the epitome of on-ice success. They defeated the St. Louis Blues in the first-round, without losing a game in regulation. And the Blues were considered a Cup contender. Minnesota is a Cup contender in no one’s opinion, save for the opinions of their faithful fans.
But sometimes none of that matters. While we instinctually consider regular season team points as evidence that one club is better than another, season-series results can often tell us a different, more accurate story about what to expect in a matchup. In the 2013-14 NHL season, the Wild posted a 3-1-1 record against Chicago. Maybe the Hawks are a good matchup for Minnesota?
The Wild had some bad puck luck and subpar goaltending in the their first-round series against the Colorado Avalanche. Despite outplaying the Avs for the majority of the seven-games needed to defeat them, the Wild lost a few games they probably should’ve won. Water under the bridge, I guess. Minnesota did win in the end, eliminating the young Avalanche in Game 7 overtime, on Denver ice.
Both clubs have elite talent they can throw over the boards and onto the ice. The Wild signed UFAs LW Zach Parise and D Ryan Suter in the summer of 2012. The club has made the playoffs twice in a row since those acquisitions.
At the 2013 trade deadline the Wild mortgaged some of the future to further improve an underrated forward group, adding Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville to the right-side.
They bolstered the left-wing this past trade deadline, acquiring former thirty-goal-scorer Matt Moulson from the Sabres. Thanks Buffalo.
Captain Mikko Koivu and promising countrymen Mikael Granlund don’t look too bad down-the-middle, either. The Wild can throw a top notch top six at their opponents. Proven guys, with experience and noticeable skill.
But the Blackhawks pack a bigger punch up front. Recent Conn Smythe winners, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, are not only loaded with talent, they also love winning. And that hunger for winning playoff games will fuel them in their second-round series against the Wild, as it did when the two stars combined to score all of Chicago’s game-winning-goals against the Blues in Round 1.
Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp compliment the Kane and Toews combo. And Chicago’s depth forwards range in useful abilities. Everyone has a role on the Hawks, and each player has mastered his role. They will be very difficult to stop in the postseason.
I believe the Wild can pose a threat to Chicago’s crown if, and only if, they receive exceptional goaltending from whichever net minder they start. The Blackhawks will possess the puck in the offensive zone and generate quality scoring chances with regularity — it is what they do to every opponent. The Wild are not immune from it.
Unless the Wild’s goalie(s) can channel 2012 Mike Smith — who denied the Blackhawks in the first-round that year, allowing his Phoenix Coyotes to advance — Minny will have trouble winning games against Chicago.
In Stanley Cup playoffs past, great teams have let their guard down when they play an opponent with less credentials. Heck, the Detroit Red Wings dynasty that spanned from 1995-2009, would get upset in the first-round as often as it won the Cup. Great teams have off-years and sometimes a little bit of luck (or lack of luck) can swing a series in the underdog’s favour.
That being said, if Chicago’s first-round performance against the Blues did anything, it made the statement: the Blackhawks aren’t going to be an easy out this year just because they won the Cup last year.
Sal’s Prediction: Blackhawks in 6.
They were so good against the Blues, I almost want to say “Hawks in four.” But every series is different, every matchup unique. The Wild have heart. I think they’ll grind out a few wins against Chicago. But the Hawks will prove too powerful in the end.