The Minnesota Wild will hope the third time is the charm against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Rivals in the Central Division, this will be the third consecutive year when the Wild and Blackhawks face each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Wild were the first team the Blackhawks dispatched on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 2013, needing five games to eliminate them in the first round. In 2014, the Wild were fresh off their first series win in more than a decade, ending with a Game 7 overtime victory against the Colorado Avalanche, when the Blackhawks defeated them in OT to wrap up that series in six.
Now, with the Wild coming off an upset of the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues and the Blackhawks eliminating the higher-seeded Nashville Predators, each in six games, they're set to play in the Western Conference Second Round.
The biggest difference for Minnesota this time may be the goaltending. The Wild lost starter Niklas Backstrom in warm-ups prior to Game 1 against the Blackhawks two years ago, forcing Josh Harding into the starting role after he played five regular-season games because of complications resulting from his multiple sclerosis. Last year, Minnesota relied on veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, who's now out of hockey, after rookie Darcy Kuemper sustained an injury in Game 7 against Colorado.
The Wild now have Devan Dubnyk, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, who shut out the Blackhawks on Feb. 3 and allowed one goal on April 7 when Minnesota won the final two games of the season series after Chicago won the first three.
The Blackhawks will turn back to Corey Crawford in Game 1. Crawford was ineffective in the first two games and watched Scott Darling start the final four games against the Predators, but relieved Darling in Game 6 and helped Chicago advance. Crawford had a .948 save percentage in splitting four decisions against the Wild this season.
Wild forward Jason Zucker scored three goals to lead them offensively, and Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane had two goals and eight points.
Jonathan Toews is tied for the scoring lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs with eight points (three goals, five assists), and Kane has seven points (two goals, five assists).
Kane's early return from Feb. 25 surgery to repair his fractured collarbone didn't affect him in the first round. He absorbed a few hits and kept on playing. Among his highlights was setting up a tap-in goal for Kris Versteeg in Game 5 with a spin-o-rama pass, and then pounding a slap shot past goalie Pekka Rinne in Game 6 to tie it 3-3 with six seconds left in the first period.
Patrick Sharp had a strong opening series with three goals and two assists, and he's tied with right wing Marian Hossa for the Chicago lead in shots on goal (24). Hossa hasn't scored but has five assists and dominated play at times.
Bryan Bickell has started to awaken, center Antoine Vermette's faceoff win percentage is back to its usual effectiveness in the mid-50s, and Sharp is looking more comfortable at right wing. Chicago's fourth line won more puck battles starting in Game 3, when center Marcus Kruger was flanked by Andrew Desjardins at left wing and Andrew Shaw on the right.
Rookie Teuvo Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom are added options, along with Daniel Carcillo (upper-body injury) if he's medically cleared.
Minnesota received a collaborative offensive effort in its Western Conference First Round series victory, managing 17 goals in six games.
Eight players scored at least one goal, but the stars really did their part helping pull off the upset against the Blues. Zach Parise led the Wild with seven points (three goals), including two goals in a 4-1 victory in Game 6. It was the second straight year Parise came up big in a Game 6 win at home; he scored two goals and had two assists against the Avalanche in the first round.
Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and captain Mikko Koivu each had at least three points.
The top line of Granlund between Parise and Pominville did its part in playing well away from the puck. Parise said the Wild were stronger in transition this season and that was the case against the Blues.
The line combined for 17 points. Granlund and Pominville each have five points. Niederreiter, who skated with Koivu and Chris Stewart, had three goals and four points.
Zucker, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke added depth to the bottom six and performed well when called upon. Charlie Coyle centered Vanek and Justin Fontaine. Coyle led the Wild with 16 hits and had a goal and two points. Fontaine scored his second NHL playoff goal in the second period of Game 6 against Blues rookie Jake Allen to give Minnesota a 2-0 lead. The goal led Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to replace Allen with Brian Elliott.
Chicago doesn't have the same kind of depth along the blue line as it had to win the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013.
The Blackhawks have a strong top four with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, but have inconsistency issues with their fifth and sixth defensemen, Michal Rozsival and Kimmo Timonen.
Rather than play them together, coach Joel Quenneville split Rozsival, who's 36, and Timonen, who's 40. Quenneville played Rozsival with Keith and Timonen with Seabrook during the first round. That provides some balance but prevents Keith and Seabrook from playing as the top pair.
Timonen and Rozsival have moments when they contribute, but their lapses often lead to prime scoring chances against, especially Rozsival. He finished with a minus-2 rating and gave the puck away too often.
Timonen's skating is slowly improving, but he's unable to keep up with faster players. He thinks the game at an elite level and makes sound defensive plays.
Keith and Seabrook continue to score huge playoff goals. They each scored two against Nashville; Keith decided Game 1 in double overtime, and Game 6 late in the third period. Seabrook's goal ended Game 4 one minute into triple overtime for a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Oduya and Hjalmarsson are considered the best defensive pairing, but Oduya's minus-4 rating was tied with center Marcus Kruger for worst on the Blackhawks in the first round.
Ryan Suter, who averaged 29 minutes and 31 shifts per game during the regular season, averaged 26:05 and 32 shifts in the first round and played a key part in helping thwart one of the top-scoring teams in the Western Conference.
The Blues, who averaged 2.92 goals per game in the regular season, were limited to 2.33 against the Wild.
Suter was aided by defense partner Jonas Brodin, who didn't have a point in the series but averaged 22:31 of ice time per game. He played tough minutes against top forwards and finished with a Wild-leading 15 blocked shots. With the exception of Vladimir Tarasenko (six) and Patrik Berglund (two), no St. Louis player had more than one goal.
The Wild defense has allowed 26.5 shots per game in the playoffs.
Defense partners Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella logged a lot of ice time. Scandella had two goals, three points, 12 blocked shots and a plus-5 rating. Spurgeon had a goal, three points, 12 blocked shots and a plus-3 rating.
Matt Dumba partnered with Jordan Leopold and formed a solid third pair. Dumba scored a goal and averaged a little less than 15 minutes a game. He saw time on the second power-play unit.
Quenneville named Crawford as the Game 1 starter Monday, meaning Chicago's goaltending situation has come full circle since the start of the playoffs. Crawford began the postseason as the starter, allowed nine goals in his first four periods, and was replaced by Darling.
Just when it looked like Darling might become the top option for the playoffs, he allowed four goals in a 5-2 loss in Game 5 and let in three more in the first period of Game 6 before getting pulled. Just as Darling did in Game 1, Crawford came off the bench to earn the win.
Crawford didn't allow a goal on 13 shots, just as Darling didn't allow a goal on 42 shots in relief to win Game 1 in double overtime. Prior to that series, Crawford had never been pulled from a playoff start by Quenneville and started 57 straight postseason games for the Blackhawks before to Darling's start in Game 3.
Darling, a feel-good story from the Chicago suburb of Lemont, Ill., has the better 2.21 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Crawford (4.19, .850) appears to have the crease to start the second round. Some might view the situation as a weakness, but Chicago knows it now has two playoff-tested goalies.
The biggest question entering the playoffs was how Dubnyk would play in his first trip. He answered by excelling when the Wild needed him most, finishing with a 2.32 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
After allowing six goals on 17 shots and being replaced by Kuemper late in the second period of a 6-1 loss in Game 4, Dubnyk rebounded with 36 saves in a 4-1 victory in Game 5 at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
"When your goalie's playing confident when the heat is on, I think the rest of the group feeds off of that," coach Mike Yeo said.
Dubnyk made saves on 66 of the final 68 shots he faced in Games 5 and 6 after being pulled in the Game 4 loss. In the Game 6 clincher, Dubnyk made 14 saves in the second period and 12 in the third to close the series.
"I was thinking about it over the last couple days," Dubnyk said. "It just feels right. It feels right for our group to be where we are and to continue to move forward. That's why it's easy to go out and play and feel like we're going to win because we've done it all year. Hopefully we can continue doing that."
Dubnyk was 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts in 38 straight starts for the Wild in the regular season. Of the losses, seven were by one goal and two were in a shootout.
Quenneville is 103-84 in the playoffs and has reached the Western Conference Second Round for the third straight season. Since taking over in 2008-09, the Blackhawks are 13-4 in 17 playoff series.
Under Quenneville, the Blackhawks have advanced to the conference final four times and won the Stanley Cup twice. Thanks to all that experience, Chicago goes into almost every series with a coaching advantage.
Quenneville's demanding style is behind the Blackhawks' 13-4 record in potential series-clinching games, and the Blackhawks have lost one series they've led. They've squandered leads of more than a game within a series three times, and each time they've closed it out. One of those series was against the Wild last season.
Credit also goes to first-year goaltending coach Jimmy Waite for the Blackhawks defeating the Nashville Predators. The goalie switching could've become a disaster, but Waite kept Crawford and Darling engaged and motivated.
Yeo had a good handle on the Wild, even after a 6-1 loss at Xcel Energy Center in Game 4. The six goals were the most allowed by the Wild in a playoff game.
After that loss, the Wild outscored the Blues 8-2 being outshot 68-40 over the next two games to win the series.
Yeo has confidence they can bounce back from tough losses. The Wild have been in playoff mode since January, when they were near the bottom of the Western Conference, and Yeo must be given credit for their methodical rise in the standings.
He will look to help the Wild go beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The Wild are a stronger, more mentally focused team than the one eliminated in six games by Blackhawks in the second round in 2014.
"We've been playing in tight games," Parise said. "We've been playing in games for a long time that we've had to win. We're comfortable doing that."
After having the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill most of the regular season, Chicago started backsliding in the stretch run and couldn't shake it in the first round. The Blackhawks allowed six goals in 22 times shorthanded against Nashville for a 72.7 percent success rate tied for 13th among the 16 playoff teams.
Their power play scored three goals in 19 chances (15.8 percent), but the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice under Quenneville with a middling power play. Each of those teams had a strong a penalty kill.
Minnesota went 0-for-17 on power plays in their 2013 first-round loss to the Blackhawks and went 2-for-17 against Chicago in the second round last year.
The power play, which ranked in the bottom five in the NHL during the regular season, was exceptional against the Blues. The Wild finished 4-of-12 with the man-advantage and lead the League with a 33.3 percent power-play efficiency in six games.
Four players scored a power-play goal. Parise, who had one, led the Wild with 11 power-play goals in the regular season.
The penalty-killing unit, which finished first in the NHL during the regular season, went 9-of-11 (81.8 percent). Playing significant roles were defensemen Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Scandella, and forwards Koivu, Brodziak and Cooke.
Left Wing - CHI
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 2
SOG: 4 | +/-: 2
Bryan Bickell -- The big wing has done it the previous two postseasons against the Wild and will likely need to make a big impact in this series for the Blackhawks.
Chicago has struggled getting to the net most of the season, and nobody protects that area like Minnesota. The Wild collapse quickly in the defensive zone to prevent second-chance opportunities and make it difficult to get shots from the middle of the ice.
Bickell, 6-foot-4, 223 pounds, is built for cracking through the wall. He had three goals and one assist in five postseason games against the Wild in 2013 and followed it last postseason against Minnesota with four goals and two assists.
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 7
SOG: 11 | +/-: 3
Zach Parise -- During their 2014 series against the Blackhawks, Parise was held to one goal and four points. It was a frustrating series and one he would like to atone for this spring. The Wild are more offensively fortified this season, so Parise could be due for a breakout series. He leads the Wild in goals and points and has scored one shorthanded goal in six playoff games. He has 12 hits and seven blocked shots. Parise is tied for the wILD postseason lead with 22 points in 24 games, five fewer than Marian Gaborik played.
"I try to be a lead-by-example type of guy,'' Parise said.
BLACKHAWKS WILL WIN IF … Their penalty kill gets back to top form and they stay patient against the Wild's frustrating forecheck. Chicago will again need the core group of elite players to lead it, but it's going to take a concerted effort from all of their forwards to charge the net and disrupt Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk. Chicago will be in good shape if there is a more consistent defensive effort in front of its goalie.
WILD WILL WIN IF … The offense continues to get a consistent effort from all four lines and the star players come through in big spots. The top line of Parise, Granlund, and Pominville combined for 17 points against St. Louis; they will need to carry that over against the Blackhawks. The defense will have its hands full against a crafty, skilled forward group, but Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon and Scandella received a good test against the Blues and proved very effective. If special teams continue to excel, the Wild should expect to be in every game. Dubnyk will need to make the big save when it's needed most. The 28-year-old may need to steal a game or two in order for the Wild to advance to the Western Conference Final.
Compiled Brian Hedger and Mike Morreale