Chicago Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson is checked by Minnesota Wild's Zach Parise.
Thanks to an explosive third period on home ice, the Minnesota Wild forced a Game 7 in their series with the Colorado Avalanche, winning Game 6 by a score of 5-2 on Monday night.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Blackhawks are resting at home watching that series drag on, awaiting the winner so that they know where they’ll be playing the first two games of their second round series. If the Avalanche prevail on home ice on Wednesday night, then the Blackhawks would open the second round in Denver, likely on Friday or Saturday. If it’s the Wild that end up pulling the road upset, then the Blackhawks would open the second round at the United Center on either Friday or Sunday (the Chicago Bulls have the arena booked for Saturday, in case they have a Game 7).
Game 7 situations tend to be coin-flip affairs, with greasy goals and other oddities proving to be the difference in the winner-take-all games. The question that a lot of Blackhawks fans and media pundits have been asking themselves over the past few days is this: which team do the Blackhawks stack up against better?
The answer isn’t as obvious as some may think. Yes, the Avalanche are a higher seed than the Blackhawks, and the Wild are a lower seed, but both teams have strengths that could be challenges for the Hawks to deal with. The Avalanche are an incredibly fast team, and their youth and exuberance has made them into a serious contender in their first season under Patrick Roy. Add a goaltender like Semyon Varlamov to the mix, who has been the Hawks’ kryptonite all season long, and you have a recipe for a really tough second round challenge.
As for the Wild, they also won their season series against the Blackhawks, and they seem to be playing their best hockey at the right time of the season. Darcy Kuemper has been playing some of the best hockey of his life as he’s finally locked down the goaltending position for the squad, and on offense the Wild aren’t exactly slouches either, with Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund racking up points so far in these playoffs.
Despite those strengths however, the Hawks do have some areas in which they match up well with both teams. The Avalanche are a porous team defensively, allowing a ton of shots and permitting teams to really dictate possession against them. Those are both strengths of this Blackhawks team, and they would be able to apply all sorts of pressure on Colorado that a more defensively sound St. Louis Blues team didn’t allow them to put on. The Hawks can also match Colorado’s team speed, with guys like Jeremy Morin likely slotting into the lineup to counter opponents like Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog.
On the flip side, the Hawks also can figure out ways to beat the Wild. Their defensively responsible forwards won’t yield as much ice in the neutral zone to guys like Granlund and Parise, and having blue liners like Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson would also prevent the Wild from getting settled into their offense as easily as they have against Colorado. Offensively, the Hawks also would match up well against the Wild, who have largely abandoned the neutral zone trapping style that brought them a measure of success during their first years in the league. That means the Hawks can zip through the middle of the ice with guys like Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad leading the charge, and big bodies in front of Kuemper could give him more headaches than Colorado has been able to provide.
Either way, the playoffs are about the best of the best teams going up against each other, and the Blackhawks would likely be a slight favorite against either one of these teams. A Colorado series would be much more of a toss-up because of how well they’ve been playing in recent weeks, so if a person was forced to make a choice, then a series against the Wild would be slightly preferable.
They are still trying to finish reshaping their image, and even though they’ve done a great job of it so far this season, they still have work to do. Add home ice advantage to that equation, and it’s likely that the Hawks would prefer to face their neighbors to the north, rather than their new rivals to the west, in the second round.