-- These two teams meet in the playoffs for the second straight postseason, although there's a much different feel about this Minnesota Wild team than a season ago, when they backed into the postseason and were easy pickings for a Chicago Blackhawks team that dispatched them in five games. This time, the Blackhawks are humming, coming off four straight wins against the St. Louis Blues after dropping the first two games in emotional overtime losses, and they have shown no early signs of the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. The Wild, meanwhile, dropped the first two against the Colorado Avalanche, trailed 3-2 in the series and then in Game 7 had to erase four different one-goal deficits before winning in overtime on Nino Niederreiter's wicked wrist shot. In other words, this is a team that's got tons of heart.
Blackhawks: Team offense
The Blackhawks are absolutely cooking offensively. After dropping the first two games of the opening-round series against the Blues, the Blackhawks moved into high gear, outscoring the Blues 14-6 in the final four games while averaging 3.33 goals per game through the six-game set against one of the top defensive teams in the NHL. Six players scored more than once in the series, 12 players had at least one goal and they were perfect in games in which they scored first (and 0-for-2 in games they did not). Perhaps most impressive is that the team's best players are already in peak form early in the playoffs. Patrick Kane has three goals, Duncan Keith is tied for the team lead with seven points, Brent Seabrook has six points, even though he was suspended for half the first-round series for his vicious hit on David Backes, and all captain Jonathan Toews has done is score three game winners. On the other side of the puck, the Blackhawks have been at the top of their game killing penalties, allowing just two power-play goals on 29 opportunities. In short, the Blackhawks are rolling, and that's a scary thing for the Wild.
What a wacky team these Wild are when it comes to goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov was ordinary at best as the Wild fell behind 2-0 in the series, allowing eight goals and turning in an .822 save percentage. Bryzgalov, picked up from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline, was replaced by rookie Darcy Kuemper, who had been injured, and Kuemper led the Wild back into the series with three wins in four games. But Kuemper was hurt in the third period of Game 7, forcing Bryzgalov back into the net, and he shut down the Avs the rest of the way, though he was not severely tested. I can't imagine Bryzgalov can put together enough quality starts for the Wild to have a shot at defeating the Blackhawks, which means the team's hopes rest with the ability of Kuemper to get back into playing shape. But if history has told us anything, we haven't likely seen the last of Bryzgalov.
Hero In Waiting
Blackhawks: Patrick Sharp
It was an unusually pedestrian start to the playoffs for Patrick Sharp, who led the Blackhawks during the regular season with 34 goals, 78 points and 10 power-play goals (tied with Kane). Sharp managed to collect just one goal and zero assists in six games, although his lone goal was a huge one in Game 6, in which he managed to slide the puck past Blues netminder Ryan Miller in spite of being high-sticked in the face on a breakaway. Sharp's reputation in recent years has been that of the consummate money player. It's why he was named to Canada's Olympic team and it's why he was in the playoff MVP discussion last spring, when he had 10 goals and 16 points as the Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup in four seasons. Sharp will make his presence known sooner than later.
Wild: Zach Parise
Lots of folks took turns stepping forward for the Wild in the first round, from Niederreiter, who had two goals in Game 7, to Erik Haula to Charlie Coyle, who tied for the team lead with three goals, and even former sniper Dany Heatley, who had five points. But for us, a tip of the hat to Zach Parise, who was a force, leading the team with 10 points. Last spring was a disappointing turn for Parise, who had just one point -- a goal -- in his first playoff appearance since signing that monster deal in the summer of 2012. His leadership will be key to the Wild hanging in against the defending champs in much the same way that Toews is so crucial to the Blackhawks' on-ice identity.
OK, so the Blackhawks blew a lead late in Games 1 and 2, but that seems like a million years ago, no? And their power play was fairly tepid, scoring three times on 20 chances against the Blues. But for us, if there is a flaw with this team that could reveal itself, it is fatigue. In 2013, they eased into the postseason with a workmanlike five-game series victory over the Wild and then fell behind against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round before ramping things up. How much did the first round against the Blues take out of the Blackhawks? Maybe they hit their prime earlier, but what if emotional/physical fatigue becomes a factor sooner than later? And what if sooner means in this series? Just saying.
Well, if Kuemper can't go and Bryzgalov can't get his act together, this series will get over in a hurry. But if the Wild goaltending is respectable, the question will be the Wild's mindset after such a grueling series against the Avs. Last season, this team was happy to get into the playoffs -- and it looked like it. Are they happy just to be in the second round? It'll be up to the strong leadership core of Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Matt Moulson et al to keep the emotional level in the right place. It won't be an easy task.
It says here the Wild are going to be a mighty thorn in the side of the Blackhawks, especially if they can keep getting balanced scoring and their strong penalty kill continues (they allowed just three goals on 25 chances). We wish we had the chutzpah to pick them to pull off the upset, but the Blackhawks have too much going on for the Wild, from a refocused Corey Crawford in net to their big guns firing.
Blackhawks in 6