Next season, the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will join the same division thanks to NHL realignment, but for this year, fans of the two teams still aren’t too familiar with each other. In order to help that process along, Madhouse Enforcer has tapped Sebastian Egerton-Read (@SebERead on Twitter) of The Hockey Writers and Emilie Wiener (@Eminemilie) of Hockey Wilderness to give us a look at the Hawks’ first round opponent.
Madhouse Enforcer: Zach Parise may have struggled this year against the Blackhawks, but has been great otherwise. What is your impression of his first year with Minnesota?
Sebastian Egerton-Read: Parise obviously led the Wild with 18 goals and 38 points this season, but more than that he played (and will presumably continue to play) a pivotal role in the emerging identity of a “new” Minnesota. He plays energetically and has brought extra passion to this franchise during his first, albeit short, season in St. Paul. I expect him to be pumped up and to do a lot better against Chicago in the playoffs.
Emilie Wiener: Parise is an all work, no play guy. He always hustles and never quits. He compliments the Wild’s captain (Mikko Koivu) well, and I have yet to see him unwilling to give an interview in the locker room this season. Even though he is undersized, he plays like he’s Zdeno Chara size some nights. He’ll dump the puck and get to it before anyone else, doesn’t hesitate to throw his body in against bigger guys in front of the net, and it’s a pretty rare sight to see anyone get a full check on him. Couldn’t have asked more from him this season.
ME: Ryan Suter averaged 30 minutes per game against the Hawks this year. What, in your opinion, is the biggest contribution he makes to the team?
EW: Stability. He rarely makes a mistake, and is willing to carry the entire blue line on his back. Last season, the Wild had Marco Scandella (AHL this season) and Tom Gilbert (3rd paring this season) consistently playing 25-35 minute games on the top pair. Suter puts up points, but covers his own zone so well that there have been a number of periods where opponents haven’t been able to get a SOG while he was on the ice. Like Parise, couldn’t have asked for more from him.
SR: Without question in my mind it is what he brings in transition. I’m not sure there are any blue liners in the NHL better at consistently making strong plays coming out of their own zone. He transforms defensive situations into attacking situations very easily and efficiently.
ME: Name one player who stands out with his on-ice play, but isn't necessarily a guy whose statistics would blow the average fan's mind.
SR: Charlie Coyle is a player to watch in my opinion. He found his way onto the top line alongside Parise and (Mikko) Koivu when (Mike) Yeo was looking for offensive balance, but I think he actually brings out the best in that pair. He is big and tremendously difficult to shift off the puck, he has a nose for the net, plays in the dirty areas, and is defensively responsible. He finished the regular season with five points in six games.
EW:Jonas Brodin. I could talk about this kid until I’m blue in the face, and then I would keep talking about him. He’s 19 in his first year playing North American hockey,has more ice time than any other rookie, evades checks so well it should be illegal and plays tougher competition than anyone not named Suter for the Wild. He moves so effortlessly that watching him skate is almost an art form. He was out with a broken collar bone until a few weeks after the NHL season started, but has managed to make his way onto the PP and the PK units, where he more than holds his own.
ME: What element of the Blackhawks' game should be of the most concern to the Wild?
EW: On a good night, the Wild have 4 competent defenders that stick to the system and don’t make glaring mistakes. With the pressure and skill that the Blackhawks have with their forwards, all 6 defenders are going to have play practically perfect to not let the game get out of control.
SR: Every year for the past four or five seasons the Blackhawks have boasted an impressive array of talent led by the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, which is always concerning for any opponent. However, the 2013 version of Chicago is concerning for every other team in the playoffs because of the intensity with which they have played. They’re quick, they play more physical than most people realize, and a young Wild line-up will be hard pressed to match that.
ME: If you were to choose one key to a potential Wild upset of the Blackhawks, what would it be?
SR: It has to start with Niklas Backstrom. He struggled in his previous postseason outing all the way back in 2008 and consistency has been an issue at times this season. However, if he plays well (really well) early on in this series, and he is capable, then that could have the dual effect of putting pressure on Chicago and giving some confidence to the Wild.
EW: When the Wild have their heads in the game and are completely focused, they can wear and tear on teams with the best in the league. Patrick Kane gave a quote to Chris Kluc yesterday about how the Wild are a tough team, but sometimes they look like they don’t even want to be on the ice. It was completely accurate. But if the Wild can come focused and have the game faces on, this series won’t be the 4-game sweep everyone is predicting.