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Wild vs. Blackhawks Round 2 Preview

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild

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 in which the Wild and Blackhawks face each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Wild was the first team the Blackhawks dispatched en route to winning the Stanley Cup in 2013, needing five games to eliminate them in the first round. In 2014 the Wild was fresh off its first series win in more than a decade, culminating in a Game 7 overtime victory against the Colorado Avalanche, when the Blackhawks sent the club packing with an OT win of its own to wrap up the series in six.

Now, with the Wild coming off an upset of the Central Division champion St. Louis Blues and the Blackhawks also eliminating a higher seed in the Nashville Predators, each in six games, they're set to do battle again 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 only 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, meanwhile, will turn back to Corey Crawford in Game 1. Crawford was ineffective over the first two games and watched Scott Darling start the final four games against the Predators, but relieved Darling in Game 6 and turned in a shutout performance to help Chicago advance. Crawford had a .948 save percentage in splitting four decisions against the Wild this season.

Forward Jason Zucker scored three goals to lead Minnesota offensively in the regular-season series while Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane had two goals and eight points.

Forwards

Wild — 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 in helping pull off the upset against the favored St. Louis Blues. Zach Parise led the team in scoring with seven points (three goals), including two goals in a 4-1 victory in Game 6 on Sunday. 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 last season. Minnesota went on to win the series in Game 7.

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 was stronger in transition this season and that was certainly 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 career playoff goal in the second period of Game 6 against Blues rookie Jake Allen to give St. Louis a 2-0 lead. The goal led Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to replace Allen with Brian Elliott.

Blackhawks — Look no further than the two biggest names for evidence of the Blackhawks wealth of talent up front.

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 racked up five assists and dominated play at times.

Forward Bryan Bickell has started to awaken from his regular-season slumber, 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.

Defensemen

WildRyan Suter, who averaged 29 minutes and 31 shifts per game during the regular season, was right back at it in the postseason. He averaged 26:05 a game and 32 shifts 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 goals per game against the Wild.

Suter was aided by defense partner Jonas Brodin, who didn't record 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 team-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 and stepped up. 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 defense pair. Dumba scored a goal and averaged just under 15 minutes a game. He also saw time on the second power-play unit.

Blackhawks — 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 has split up Rozsival, who's 36, and Timonen, who's 40. He played Rozsival with Keith and Timonen with Seabrook during the first round. That provides some balance, but also prevents Keith and Seabrook from playing as the top pair.

Timonen and Rozsival have moments where 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 still thinks the game at an elite level and makes sound defensive plays.

Meanwhile, Keith and Seabrook continue to score huge playoff goals. They each scored two goals 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 still considered the best defensive pairing, but Oduya's minus-4 rating was tied with center Marcus Kruger for worst on the team in the first round.

Goalies

Wild — The biggest question entering the playoffs was how Dubnyk would fare in his first trip. He answered by excelling when the team needed him most, finishing with a 2.32 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.

He proved to be strong when the chips were down too. 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, he rebounded with a 36-save performance 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," 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 more in the third to close out 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.

Blackhawks — Quenneville named Crawford as his Game 1 starter on 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., still has the better 2.21 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. Crawford (4.19, .850) appears to have the crease to start out against the Minnesota Wild. Some might view the situation as a weakness, but Chicago knows it now has two playoff-tested goalies.

Coaches

Wild — Yeo had a good handle on his team, even after a 6-1 loss at Excel Energy Center in Game 4. The six goals were the most ever allowed by the Wild in a playoff game.

After that loss, Yeo saw the Wild outscore the Blues 8-2 despite being outshot 68-40 over the next two games to win the series.

He has complete confidence they can bounce back from tough losses. The Wild has basically been in playoff mode since January, when the team was 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 lead the Wild beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The Wild is 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."

Blackhawks — Quenneville is 103-84 in the playoffs and has guided the Blackhawks into the Western Conference Second Round for the third straight season. Since taking over Chicago's bench 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 only lost one series they've led. They've only squandered leads of more than a game within a series three times for Quenneville, and each time they've stormed back to close 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 beating the Nashville Predators. The goalie switching could've become a disaster, but Waite kept Crawford and Darling engaged and motivated.

Special Teams

Wild — Specialty teams played a huge part in Minnesota's first round series against the Blues.

The power play, which ranked in the bottom five in the League during the regular season, was exceptional. 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 different players chipped in with power-play goals. Parise, who scored one of them, 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) against the Blues. Playing significant roles were defensemen Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Scandella and forwards Koivu, Brodziak, and Cooke.

Blackhawks — The Blackhawks would like to improve on the power play, but must improve the penalty kill.

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 playoff teams.

Its power play produced three goals in 19 chances (15.8 percent), but the Blackhawks have already won the Stanley Cup twice under Quenneville with a middling power play. Each of those title teams had a strong a penalty kill.

Minnesota went 0-for-17 on power plays in their 2013 Western Conference First Round loss to the Blackhawks and went 2-for-17 against Chicago in the second round a year ago.

Series Changer

Zach Parise — During the 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 franchise 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.

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 the Wild. Minnesota collapses quickly in the defensive zone to prevent second-chance opportunities and makes it difficult to get shots from the middle of the ice.

Bickell, who's 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.

Will Win If

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 in Chicago, but Suter, Brodin, Spurgeon, and Scandella received a good test against the Blues and proved very effective. If special teams continues to excel, the Wild should expect to be in every game. Last but certainly not least, 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.

Blackhawks will win if…Their penalty kill gets back to top form and they stay patient against the Wild's frustrating forecheck. They will again need the core group of elite players to lead them, 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 also be in good shape if there is a more consistent defensive effort in front of the goalie.

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