The Chicago Blackhawks are viewed as arguably the biggest favorite out of the four second round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they can take a spot in the Western Conference Final for granted.
That statement is obvious, but here’s a question whose answer is a little less apparent: what will the Blackhawks have to do in order to eliminate the Wild and advance? For help with that answer, here are our Three Keys for the Hawks as the second round begins.
Team Speed an Asset That Must Be Exploited
The Wild have been doing a much better job in recent years of playing a more balanced game, but their defense is still largely predicated on preventing scoring chance by clogging up the neutral zone. With guys like Ryan Suter on the ice, they are very effective in using this strategy, and even if teams are able to get through the defense and set up in the offensive zone, the Wild can still use their discipline and physicality to disrupt things.
What the Blackhawks have to do in order to counteract this ability of the Wild is to get their transition offense game going. Players like Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson are tremendous at forcing the puck up the ice using stretch passes (see Jonathan Toews’ breakaway goal that won Game 5 against the St. Louis Blues as an example), and Nick Leddy has the quickness and awareness to jump up the ice and create zone entries by himself. Both of those skillsets will come in handy if the Wild try to muck things up in the middle of the ice, and the Hawks could really exploit that if they play their cards correctly.
Traffic in Front an Absolute Must
One of the things that the Blackhawks did a great job of in their series against the Blues was to get traffic in front of Ryan Miller. Whether it was Andrew Shaw on the power play or Bryan Bickell and Ben Smith at even strength, having guys with quick hands and a fearless nature in front created a ton of screens, and the Hawks scored quite a few goals as a result of this strategy.
The Wild are a team that is definitely capable of clearing out the area in front of the net, but the Hawks can’t give up in that portion of the ice. Creating screens in front of Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper will not only put either goaltender off of their game, but it could also directly lead to goals, judging by how well Bickell and Shaw did in deflecting goals into the net in the Blues series.
Defensive Responsibility Has to be a Priority
During the final few weeks of the NHL season, the Blackhawks had to deal with some serious injuries among their forward group, but their defensive indiscipline was even more startling. They made some really bad mistakes in losses to the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators, and they seemed to have a tough time remembering which player had which assignment back on the blue line.
Recently, the Hawks have cleaned that up a bit, but there is still work to be done. They had a couple of incidents with bad defensive pinches (Leddy) and carelessness with the puck along the boards (Michal Rozsival), but for the most part their responsibility has improved quite a bit as crunch time has begun, and they will need to continue that trend if they want to beat the Wild in this series.