Last season, the Minnesota Wild’s postseason hopes were flashed fried in a quick five games by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion, Chicago Blackhawks. If revenge is a dish best served cold, the Wild looks to turn the United Center into a meat locker in Game 1 against the Blackhawks tonight.
Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov will be looked upon as the cooler against Chicago tonight, as Darcy Kuemper left Game 7 with an injury. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said that Kuemper is not with the team and will get checked out. He’s considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
While it wasn’t much of a series against Chicago last season, this is a very different Wild team. Fresh off its Round 1 win against the Central Division champion, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota is deeper and full of confidence.
“It’s a different team than we saw last season,” Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’ve got more speed, skill.”
Two players with speed and skill expected to play a critical role for the Wild this go-round are Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. Last year, Pominville was coming off an injury and only appeared in two playoff games, while Granlund was a part of the Black Aces, the club’s minor league players re-called at the end of the season for extra practice.
The duo built chemistry against the Blackhawks and was the club’s leading scorers against Chicago (Pominville 4-1=5; Granlund 0-4=4). However, the playoffs are a whole different beast.
“It’s a different season,” Pominville said. “We did do some good things in the (regular) season. Hopefully we can keep moving the puck and playing with the puck, and if we can do that we don’t have to defend and we’ll have more of a chance to create offensively.”
Chicago’s depth at forward is often what sets it apart from other teams around the league. If you look at last year, the Wild wasn’t adept at handling the Hawks’ ability to roll four lines. Quenneville said, “We’ve always been a four-line team,” and he expects to continue the trend in this matchup, but added he’ll wait to see how the series is playing out.
From the Wild’s perspective, Yeo believes production throughout the lineup will be a critical storyline in the series.
“In the series against them (last year) it seemed like the top guys cancelled each other off and their depth took over,” Yeo said. “You’re not going to win every matchup every night, but what you’re looking for is to draw even in a lot of them and draw an edge somewhere.
“We think that we have the type of team where the burden shouldn’t be on one or two different guys.”
In a best-of-seven series, different players need to step up at critical junctures. In Game 7 against the Avs, it was the line of Nino Niederreiter, Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley that stepped up. After sitting as a healthy scratch for the first two games in Round 1, Healtey was rejuvenated when he returned to the lineup, posting five points (1-4=5) in the final five games. In the team’s morning skate, he was in front of the net on the top unit with Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville.
“For me, this is the most Dany Heatley that we’ve seen him all year,” Yeo said. “He’s moving real well right now, he’s a guy with experience, he plays a composed game, is strong on the puck, and obviously can create some offense when he’s out there.”
As it so often is in playoff hockey, special teams might make or break the series for both clubs. However, it will be tough sledding for either power play unit, as both penalty kill units are playing at a high level. Chicago leads the NHL (93.1 percent), allowing only two power play goals against the Blues. Minnesota ranks fourth (88 percent) by only giving up three PPGs against the Avs, one of which came on an empty net. Meanwhile, the teams were nearly identical on the power play (Chicago 15 percent, Minnesota 14.3 percent), each scoring three goals in the First Round.
In Game 7, Charlie Coyle took a puck to the face, leading him to miss part of the first period. The forward went to the locker room and received 15 stitches to his bottom lip and chin, and later returned to the game because, you know, he’s a hockey player. Coyle spoke to the media with his chin and lip zipped up, and it’s still a bit swollen.
“It’s the most I’ve ever had; it was well worth it,” Coyle attempted to smile through his availability. “I’m totally engaged now.”
Josh Harding practiced during today’s morning skate but Yeo said that it’s an “extreme long shot” he’ll see any ice in the series. The bench boss said it’s more about getting him in practice and to be with the team. John Curry will back up Bryzgalov tonight.
Where to Watch
The Round 2 matchup between the Wild and Blackhawks will air nationally on NBC’s network of channels (Game 1: NBCSN; Game 2: NBC; Game 3: CNBC).
FOX Sports North will also have pre and postgame coverage of the entire series, as well as a rebroadcasting of the games. Go here for details pertaining to FSN’s coverage schedule.