The Minnesota Wild were the last team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs; they had to win their season finale on the road against the Colorado Avalanche after a late-season slump nearly kept them out of the postseason for the sixth straight season. Minnesota's two big free-agent acquisitions, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, have played well, but there's not a lot of scoring depth and Suter can't play every shift on the blue line. If Niklas Backstrom struggles in goal, there's no reliable help behind him.
It's hard to play much better than the Chicago Blackhawks, who started their season 21-0-3 and ended it by going 10-3-2, with two of the losses in meaningless road games during the final week. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa lead a deep and balanced attack, Duncan Keith heads a solid corps of defensemen, and the goaltending combination of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery allowed a League-low 97 non-shootout goals.
Chicago won the season series 2-0-1.
The eighth-seeded Wild will have to play virtually mistake-free hockey to compete with the top-seeded Blackhawks -- and even that may not be enough to win.
When healthy, as the Chicago Blackhawks look to be, they have the best forward group in the Western Conference and arguably in the NHL.
The obvious difference-makers are in the top six, with Toews, Kane, Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Rookie left wing Brandon Saad found almost instant chemistry with Toews and Dave Bolland, who should be ready despite a groin injury. Bolland has done his job well enough all season to stay on the second line between Sharp and Kane, where he likely will be for Game 1.
Toews and Kane had MVP-caliber seasons. Hossa and Sharp each have battled shoulder injuries but appear healthy. Saad has been the physical, offensive force the Blackhawks were hoping he'd be, and did it a season ahead of schedule.
The Blackhawks, though, wouldn't be as good as they were in the regular season without necessary contributions from their third- and fourth-liners: Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger, who arguably is the most improved forward on the team from last season to this one.
Though they have more grit and tenacity than most teams in their top six, the Blackhawks are buoyed by the grinding games they get from their bottom six. Bickell, Shaw and Stalberg combined for nearly 30 goals, making them dangerous as well as difficult to play.
The Minnesota Wild sustained a hit earlier in April when Dany Heatley sustained a left shoulder injury that will sideline him the remainder of the season. Despite that loss, the moves to acquire Parise, Torrey Mitchell and Jason Pominville are proving to be even more valuable.
Parise has been as advertised, leading the team in goals, points, power-play goals and game-winners on the top line with center Mikko Koivu and rookie Charlie Coyle. The addition of Pominville at the NHL Trade Deadline gives the Wild four forwards (minus Heatley) with at least 10 goals. Pominville sustained a possible concussion late in the season but is working his way back into the lineup, saying Friday he is feeling "OK."
Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard have been healthy much of the season. Koivu missed 27 games last season and Bouchard was sidelined 45 matches when the Wild finished No. 12 in the Western Conference. The offense, which was ranked last in the NHL in 2011-12 with a 2.02 goals-per game average, is averaging almost 2.50 this year.
Veteran center Matt Cullen has done a tremendous job all season and will be looked upon to pick up some slack if Pominville's injury keeps him sidelined for an extended period. Rookie Jason Zucker and right wing Devin Setoguchi have provided plenty up front.
Cal Clutterbuck and Michael Rupp are the big hitters in the lineup and are relied upon for energy.
Though it remains the Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith show, the Blackhawks' defense is deeper now than any time since 2010. That's why Chicago has the best goals-against (102 goals allowed in 48 games) in the NHL and were top-five in the League in shots allowed per game and penalty killing.
Part of the depth is because of the development of Nick Leddy, whose improvements in reads and awareness have allowed coach Joel Quenneville to keep Keith's minutes to less than 25 per game this season for the first time since 2006-07.
Leddy's minutes are down from last season (he no longer kills penalties), but his effectiveness is up. He's been paired with Seabrook, which is important because instead of playing nearly half the game with Seabrook and Keith as a pair, Quenneville can play more than two-thirds of the game with at least one of his top two defensemen on the ice at all times.
Niklas Hjalmarsson also has factored into why the defense is more balanced this season than it was in either of the previous two. Quenneville has the option to play Hjalmarsson with Keith, Leddy or Johnny Oduya.
Hjalmarsson and Keith have been together for the past month, and Oduya has been paired with either Michal Rozsival or Sheldon Brookbank.
The forward position wasn't the only area the Wild decided to overhaul in the past year; the blue line also was put under construction. The 13-year, $98 million contract given to Suter in the offseason signaled a changing of the guard and certainly paid off for Minnesota.
Not only does it have a potential Norris Trophy candidate, Suter, but the Wild also possess a potential Calder Trophy candidate, Jonas Brodin, who happens to be the youngest defenseman in the NHL (20 on July 12). Suter ranks among the top five at his position in assists, points and average ice time per game. He plays more than 27 minutes per game on average.
Brodin is Suter's partner and leads first-year players in average ice time, playing more than 23 minutes a game. He finished the regular season with a plus-3 rating.
Jared Spurgeon and Brett Clark round out the top four on the back end for the Wild, which finished tied at No. 15 in the League in goals-allowed per game (2.60). Clayton Stoner established a career high in assists this season, and is a reliable shot blocker and big hitter for the team. Veteran Tom Gilbert logged valuable minutes and is a big shot blocker.
Crawford and Emery formed one of the best 1-2 tandems in the NHL. If you put their numbers together it would be worthy of consideration for the Vezina Trophy, but neither started 30 games because Quenneville couldn't let the other hot goalie sit for too long.
The beauty of the Crawford/Emery pairing is neither feels he has to be spectacular for Chicago to win; each gives the team a chance every night.
But only one of them can start in the playoffs. Emery has been banged up with a lower-body injury, so Crawford likely will get the nod for Game 1.
However, if Emery is healthy and Crawford stumbles, don't be shocked if Quenneville makes a quick change, a la Mike Babcock in 2008, when the Red Wings coach switched from Dominik Hasek to Chris Osgood and they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
If nothing else, Backstrom has proven to be one of the NHL's most consistent keepers. He finished tied for the League lead in wins (24) this season and started 30 of Minnesota's last 32 games. He appeared in 40-plus games for the seventh straight season and notched his highest win total since 2009-10.
In 11 career playoff games, though, Backstrom is 3-8 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.
If Backstrom, 35, should go down with an injury, the Wild would be in trouble. Darcy Kuemper played in six games this season, and Josh Harding was recalled from the American Hockey League on April 22 after going 1-1-0 on his rehab assignment. He played in four games for the Wild this season before suffering from symptoms related to multiple sclerosis.
Quenneville has won the Stanley Cup twice -- once as Blackhawks coach in 2010 and as an assistant with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. He has coached more than 1,200 regular-season games and won more than 650.
He may have done his best job this season because, despite injuries, he married a cast of stars and role players to form what has been the best team in the NHL from start to finish.
His lineup decisions have worked. His faith in Crawford and Emery was strong -- and now validated. The work Quenneville and his staff have done to improve Chicago's special teams has been impressive.
Minnesota's Mike Yeo will be making his first appearance as coach in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he's no stranger to postseason maneuvering. Yeo served as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2005 through 2010, which included the team's 2009 championship.
Yeo extracts the most out of his players with his ability to communicate exactly what he expects of each one on his roster. He rewards consistency and holds everyone accountable.
Chicago's special teams, particularly its penalty kill, have put up a good fight with its goaltending for the title of the team's single greatest area of improvement from last season.
The Blackhawks finished No. 27 in penalty killing last season but ranked in the top five this season. They were No. 26 on the power play last season and in 2012-13 got up to No. 19, which was good enough considering they were the best 5-on-5 team in the League.
The penalty kill is what matters most in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Kings proved that last season (92.1 percent penalty kill vs. 12.8 percent power play) and the Boston Bruins were the same in 2011 (84.4 percent penalty kill vs. 11.4 percent power play).
The Blackhawks were the last Cup-winning team to have a better than 20-percent power play in the playoffs. They also were better than 83 percent on the penalty kill that year.
The power-play was one area that made a big improvement for the Wild in 2012-13. Minnesota finished No. 27 last season, but ranked 11 places higher this one, due in large part to the acquisitions of Parise and Suter. Parise, who usually works the top unit on the man advantage with Koivu and Pominville, led the team in power-play goals with seven.
The penalty-killing unit slipped a bit in the latter stages but was among the top 15 for much of the season. Forwards Brodziak, Pominville and Koivu and defensemen Suter, Brodin and Stoner get the bulk of the ice time.
If Minnesota is to have any measure of success in the postseason, the power play must continue to thrive and make teams pay for penalties. After Parise, Koivu and Pominville, Yeo is usually sending Coyle, Cullen and Setoguchi out as the second unit with the man advantage.
Patrick Sharp: Shoulder problems have plagued Sharp since March 6, but if he's 100 percent (that's still to be determined), he should be able to give the Blackhawks that extra jolt of scoring they didn't have for most of the second half of the season. If he can get back in a groove with Patrick Kane and Dave Bolland, the Blackhawks will have one of the most dominant second lines in the NHL. Conditioning shouldn't be a problem because it wasn't a leg injury, but the Blackhawks have to hope Sharp has his timing right.
Zach Parise: Wild brass not only signed the local boy to jumpstart the offense during the regular season, but to provide experience and moxie when it mattered most: during the playoffs. Parise has thrived in the postseason throughout his career despite being a marked man. He had career highs with eight goals, seven assists and 15 points in 24 playoffs games with the New Jersey Devils last year. In 61 playoff games, Parise has 21 goals and 43 points. He's a big threat on the power play, has a relentless motor, and takes losing as hard as any player in the League.
Blackhawks will win if … They play their game -- the same game they played throughout the regular season, the game that allowed them to go 24 straight games without a regulation loss then ride another 11-game point streak from March 31-April 20. If nothing changes, the Blackhawks should have few problems advancing to the next round.
Wild will win if … They win the special-teams battle and receive stellar goaltending. The Wild ranked among the top five in the number of times they were shorthanded this season, and if that trend continues, the penalty killers need to be brilliant. The team will look to Backstrom to be lights-out and captain Koivu to provide big performances.