The Minnesota Wild are in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in five years.
The reward for its season finally Saturday in Denver, is a first round series against the NHL’s best team, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Wild finished with a 1-2 record against the Blackhawks this season. The Wild handed the Blackhawks their first loss of the season, a 3-2 shootout thriller at the Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 30.
The Blackhawks won the final two games of the season 5-3 in Chicago and 1-0 at the Xcel Energy Center.
Goalies: Corey Crawford and Ray Emery
Defensive Pairings: Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson; Nick Leddy and Brent Seabrook; Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya
Forward Lines: Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa; Patrick Sharp, Michal Handzus and Patrick Kane; Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland and Victor Stalberg; Michael Frolik – Marcus Kruger – Andrew Shaw
*Bolland and Emery have both been battling injuries. It is unknown if they will play and how the lineup would differ without them.
Goalies: Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding
Defensive Pairings: Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin; Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon; Clayton Stoner and Tom Gilbert
Forward Lines: Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle; Jason Zucker, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi; Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Kyle Brodziak and Jason Pominville; Mike Rupp, Torrey Mitchell and Cal Clutterbuck
*Pominville is expected to return from a concussion. If he is unable to play, Zenon Konopka most likely jumps onto the fourth line with Clutterbuck replacing Pominville on the third.
Keys for the Wild to win
No. 1 – Goaltending
The Wild have offensive firepower, but have not been able to get the most out of it on a consistent basis. So for the Wild to beat the Blackhawks, Backstrom has to be the MVP. With two days off prior to the start of the series and two days off between games one and two, he will be well rested.
No. 2 – Get the Blackhawks on their heels
The way to pull off an upset is to throw the first punch, get the Blackhawks reeling and put them away.
If the Wild can get the first goal or two while controlling the first period, the Blackhawks will not be able to catch up. The Wild will then need to keep the pressure on while not letting the Blackhawks to build momentum.
No. 3 – Sustain offensive zone time
The Blackhawks are as good as any team in the NHL on offense. The more they have to defend and the farther they are from Backstrom, the less opportunities they have to score.
Despite the Wild missing the playoffs for five straight seasons, several players have Stanley Cup experience.
Backstrom has a 3-8 record in 11 starts with a 2.55 goals against average and .911 save percentage over two trips to the Stanley Cup experience with the Wild in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.
Harding has one shutout period of Stanley Cup playoff experience with the Wild in the 2007-08 season.
Bouchard and Koivu have experience with the Wild while Clark, Cullen, Dowell (with the Blackhawks), Heatley, Konopka, Mitchell, Parise, Pominville, Rupp, Setoguchi and Suter have Stanley Cup experience with other teams.
Hockey Prospectus has proven that you can’t just look at the stats. Their writer gathered the stats and called picking the Blackhawks to win in four games – a sweep – “one of the safest bets we have ever seen.”
The President’s Trophy winners – as the Blackhawks are – have lost six times in the opening round, including four of the past seven seasons, while appearing in the Stanley Cup finals just 10 times. Last season’s Stanley Cup champion, Los Angeles Kings, got into the playoffs in the final week of the season and knocked off the President’s Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
The Blackhawks have won the President’s Trophy just once before in the history of the trophy and it was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round then by the Minnesota North Stars in 1990-91.
The Wild have their work cut out for them. But if they can play like they did in March, it will be a close series.
Ultimately, the Wild will dictate this series. The Wild can play with the Blackhawks and Patrick Kane provided the bulletin board material.
Prediction: The gut says, Blackhawks in six.