The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild are no strangers to one another, considering that their recent history is littered with tense battles.
Last season, the two teams met in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with the Blackhawks winning the series in five games on their way to the championship. During the 2013-14 regular season however, the Wild got a small measure of revenge, winning three of the five games that the teams played against one another.
Despite that success, many Hawks fans were delighted on Wednesday night when the Wild knocked off the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of the team’s first round playoff series. The win means that the Wild will face the Hawks for the second consecutive postseason, but it also means that Chicago will have home ice advantage in this round after having to go on the road to start their first round series against the St. Louis Blues.
The Wild will also be dealing with goaltending issues, as Darcy Kuemper was injured during Wednesday’s victory. It’s unclear whether or not he will be ready for Game 1 of the series, which will be played on Friday night, but if he can’t go, then Ilya Bryzgalov will take the reins in net. Bryzgalov has bounced around the league quite a bit since returning after being cut loose by the Philadelphia Flyers, but he seems to fit in well with Minnesota.
Despite a goaltending controversy seeming to be an advantage for the Hawks, the Wild have had to deal with this before. Last season, the team ended up losing Niklas Backstrom during warm-ups before Game 1 of the playoff series, and ultimately Josh Harding and Kuemper had to pilot the ship for the team as they fell in five games. That experience didn’t end well for Minnesota, but it also gives them a reference point for how to deal with it this season.
The Wild have also been dealing with a spate of injuries to their goaltenders this season, so they are familiar with the position being in flux. Five different goalies played games for the Wild this season, with Kuemper, Harding, and Backstrom all playing over 20. Cumulatively, the team only allowed 2.4 goals per game (seventh in the league) and had eight shutouts on the season, so despite the struggles to keep guys in the fold, the Wild still have been able to string together a productive season out of their netminders.
When you add the scoring prowess of guys like Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle to the mix, it’s easy to see why it would be foolish for the Blackhawks to underestimate the Wild. This is a team that has really evolved over the past few seasons under the direction of Mike Yeo, and they continue to mold themselves into more of a hybrid team rather than a strictly defense-oriented one.
That being said, the Hawks are still going to be looked to as favorites in this series, and rightfully so. The defending champions have overcome their own adversity as the season has worn on, including playing several games without Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the lineup. Those absences forced the Hawks to draw upon their prodigious depth on their roster, and they’ve passed the test with flying colors. Guys like Ben Smith and Bryan Bickell look to be rounding into form at exactly the right time, and that’s nothing but bad news for the Wild going into this series.
This series should be a fun one for fans on both sides, as the Wild seek revenge and the Blackhawks try to continue their quest for a second consecutive title.