One year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks rolled over the Minnesota Wild in five games on the way to their second Stanley Cup in four seasons. The Wild will get a chance to avenge that loss when they face the Blackhawks in a Western Conference Second Round series.
The Blackhawks made short work of the Wild last spring, losing Game 3 and outscoring Minnesota 8-1 in Games 4 and 5 to close out their conference quarterfinal series. But the Wild exacted a bit of revenge this season, winning three of five games and earning seven of a possible 10 points. They were 2-1-0 in St. Paul and 1-0-1 in Chicago, losing 3-2 in a shootout on April 3 in the last of the five-game season series.
But those Blackhawks were coming into the playoffs as the Presidents' Trophy winners in a lockout-shortened 48-game season. The 2013-14 version had its ups and downs before finishing third in the Central Division and spotted the St. Louis Blues a two-game lead in their first-round series.
However, the Blackhawks looked every bit like a team that could repeat as Stanley Cup champs when they steamrolled the Blues in winning four straight games. That was especially true in Game 6, when they blew open a 1-1 tie with four third-period goals for a 5-1 series-clinching victory on Sunday afternoon.
The Wild spent all of their first-round series playing catchup against the Colorado Avalanche -- and it finally paid off. Minnesota overcame 2-0 and 3-2 series deficits to force Game 7, then wiped out four one-goal deficits in the deciding game before Nino Niederreiter's overtime goal gave the Wild a 5-4 win and their first series victory in 11 years.
But the Wild come into this series with serious questions in goal. The two goaltenders who started the season, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, are out with injuries. Rookie Darcy Kuemper and trade deadline pickup Ilya Bryzgalov each had stretches of solid play down the stretch. Kuemper took over for Bryzgalov in Game 2 against Colorado and started the next five games, but he had to leave Game 7 against Colorado in the third period with an undisclosed injury. Wild coach Mike Yeo said he wasn't sure whether Kuemper would be able to play in Game 1, which begins less than 48 hours after the Wild wrapped up its victory against Colorado.
Kuemper outplayed Bryzgalov decisively against the Avalanche, posting a 2.03 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage while going 3-1; Bryzgalov was 1-2 with a 4.25 GAA and a save percentage of .826. Neither played up to the level of Chicago's Corey Crawford, who posted a 1.98 GAA and a save percentage of .935. He was 16-7 with a 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage during Chicago's Cup run last spring.
Forward Zach Parise led the Wild and tied for the League lead in the opening round with 10 points (three goals); center Mikko Koivu was next with six. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews tied for the team lead with seven points and made his three goals count; each was a game-winner, and his overtime goal in Game 5 was a backbreaker.
Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith, who matched Toews with seven points, led Chicago with an average of 29:51 in ice time per game. That's four seconds more per game than Minnesota's Ryan Suter, whose 29:24 average during the regular season was 2:20 more than runner-up Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Keith makes the Chicago offense go; he led all NHL defensemen during the regular season with 55 assists. He will also have his regular partner, Brent Seabrook, available for the whole series; Seabrook missed Games 3-5 against the Blues after he was suspended by the NHL for an illegal hit on St. Louis captain David Backes in Game 2.