The Blackhawks are set to face Minnesota for the second consecutive postseason, after the Wild posted a 5-4 overtime victory over Colorado in Game 7 of their first-round matchup. Chicago was 2-3-0 in five contests against Minnesota during the regular season, with both teams netting 14 goals. Nick Leddy led the Blackhawks with six points (1G, 5A) in five games, while Patrick Kane scored a team-high three goals in four appearances; Jason Pominville paced Minnesota with four tallies and five points in five matchups.
Part of Minnesota’s success in the first round can be attributed to their balanced offense: They share the NHL postseason lead with 13 different goal-scorers in seven games so far, including seven players with two or more tallies. The Wild’s top line of Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund has led the way, combining for 20 points (6G, 14A) in seven games, while their second line—Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson—has 13 points (5G, 8A). Overall, this is a team that can challenge Chicago’s roster from top to bottom, and the Blackhawks will need to win the line matchups in order to win the series.
Nino Niederreiter emerged as an important depth player for Minnesota this season, posting 36 points (14G, 22A) in 81 games during his first full NHL campaign. The 21-year-old Swiss native has provided energy and timely scoring in the playoffs, as well, tallying his first two career playoff goals on Wednesday—including the overtime game-winner—to lead the Wild to victory in Game 7 in Denver. Niederreiter’s first goal of the game knotted the score at 3-3, and he added an assist on another game-tying goal by Jared Spurgeon to force overtime.
With a dynamic offense and steady defense, Minnesota’s one big question mark entering the second round is the state of their goaltending, which took another big blow when 23-year-old Darcy Kuemper departed late in Game 7 with a possible head injury. Ilya Bryzgalov made one save in relief to record the victory, his first in the 2014 playoffs after going 0-2 and allowing eight goals on 45 shots (.822 save percentage) in Games 1 and 2. A revolving door in Minnesota’s net would give Head Coach Mike Yeo flashbacks—and not the good kind—to last spring, when starter Niklas Backstrom was injured prior to Game 1, ceding netminding duties to backup Josh Harding.
The first tenet of controlling possession is winning faceoffs, and Minnesota and Chicago rank 1-2 in the Western Conference so far in the postseason, thanks to the efforts of their captains. Koivu leads the NHL with 106 faceoff wins and 174 draws taken, while Toews ranks second in those categories (99 of 160) and paces players still in Stanley Cup contention with a 61.9 faceoff win percentage. Should the two be matched at the dot, their individual battle will be crucial to jumpstarting both teams’ offenses.
Blackhawks fans shouldn’t expect the same kind of series as the one that ended 4-1 in Chicago’s favor last spring, because Minnesota is fundamentally a different team—faster and with a more dynamic offense, but still exhibiting the same structural discipline that posed problems for Chicago during the regular season. The Wild put up the best possession numbers out of all 16 teams in the first round, helped in part by their league-leading faceoff win percentage, and stopping Minnesota’s forecheck will be a top priority for the Blackhawks. The Wild just played a grueling, intense Game 7 at high altitudes, a fact that Chicago can take advantage of by rolling four lines and getting the blue line involved in the attack in order to win Game 1 and set the tone for the series.