CHICAGO -- The Minnesota Wild were two points better in the 2014-15 regular season than in 2013-14, and in the past three regular seasons they've climbed from the eighth-most points in the Western Conference to the seventh-most to the sixth-most.
These are modest improvements, but that is not why the Chicago Blackhawks are bracing for what forward Marcus Kruger called their hardest challenge since they started becoming annual foes in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013.
Chicago has eliminated Minnesota in each of the past two postseasons, first with relative ease in 2013 and then in a decidedly closer series in 2014. Those Wild teams were on Plan C or even Plan D in net.
In 2013, Niklas Backstrom was injured in warm-ups before Game 1 in Chicago, so Josh Harding played. When Harding was injured later in the series, rookie Darcy Kuemper was the next man up.
In 2014, Backstrom and Harding were unavailable. Kuemper played in the Western Conference First Round series against the Colorado Avalanche, but he sustained a concussion late in Game 7, and the Wild turned to Ilya Bryzgalov for the second round against the Blackhawks.
This version of the Wild has a Vezina Trophy finalist in net. Sure, the younger players on the Wild are a year older and Thomas Vanek is on the roster, but the biggest difference is Minnesota's sudden star in goal, Devan Dubnyk.
"This year they are obviously the hottest team since Dubnyk got to their organization," Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "It is probably the best team in the League, I'd say; at least top three. We know what kind of challenge we have ahead of us. They play a great system, and everybody chips in on the great checking game."
The Blackhawks and Wild will play Game 1 of their Western Conference Second Round series Friday at United Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2). Dubnyk has been a main storyline for Minnesota's second-half resurgence.
He was 27-9-2 with a .936 save percentage after arriving in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes in mid-January. The Wild rose from last place in the Central Division and eight points shy of a playoff spot to earn the first wild card, and Dubnyk played in 39 of the final 40 games.
"He is one of the strengths in their game," Kruger said. "He's been great for them since he's been there. I know that is something we need to talk about, to find a way to score on him. We feel confident playing them after the past two years, but we know it is going to be a tough series."
The Blackhawks have already started thinking about ways to beat Dubnyk.
"He plays deep in the net. He's a good goalie," Chicago forward Marian Hossa said. "You definitely try to put a shot, but the shots he sees are easy for him. Definitely traffic, so he has to look through the bodies and second chances.
"They improved. They got the goalie who is really strong and they believe in him. Their team game is much stronger and they play very disciplined hockey. They don't take many penalties, so if we get an opportunity, we want to make sure we capitalize on it."
Not only do the Wild not take many penalties, but Dubnyk has been sensational when they are down a man. His save percentage with Minnesota while shorthanded in the regular season was .932, which would be second to Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov over the full 2014-15 season.
There are other reasons to believe the Wild can play with and defeat the Blackhawks, but chief among them is Dubnyk, who gives Minnesota something it hasn't had the past couple of postseasons: true stability in net.
"He definitely gives us a lot of confidence. You see when he came in, our group was struggling for sure," Wild forward Kyle Brodziak said. "We kind of lost our identity a little bit. He came and calmed things down and let us get back to our game. We feel very confident with him back there."