WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 1:
CHICAGO: The expectations, as they have been for the last several seasons, are high in Chicago, but these are a different brand of Blackhawks than years prior. The old Blackhawks used to beat teams with high-powered offense and stingy defense, getting ahead early and riding their talent to victory. This time around, the Blackhawks have had to rely on their ability to fight back when trailing, as they erased two- and three-goal deficits in their first-round series against the Nashville Predators and somehow skated away with victories. While the ability is still present offensively, Chicago is going to need to shore up some of their defensive woes if they want to get by Minnesota. In the first round, the Blackhawks averaged more shots against per 60 minutes than any other team still standing in the post-season.
MINNESOTA: When this Wild team has control of the puck, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Because of that – and because of the play of Devan Dubnyk – beating the Minnesota Wild seems nearly impossible right now. After going on a magical run to make the post-season, Minnesota snuffed out St. Louis, the Western Conference’s second best team, in the first round and now they move on to a Blackhawks squad that they defeated in both games following Dubnyk’s arrival. Their offense hasn’t quite clicked yet, but Zach Parise and company are stepping up when it matters most. The continued emergence of secondary scorers Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter bodes well for the Wild.
MVP SO FAR:
CHICAGO: Jonathan Toews continues to show why he’s one of the fiercest competitors in the NHL today. Toews’ line with Brandon Saad and Marian Hossa were rarely, if ever, trapped in the Chicago zone when on the ice and terrorized the Nashville defense at every turn. Through the first round, Toews leads all Blackhawks with three goals and eight points. He came up big in Games 1 and 6 when Chicago was trying to claw back, scoring three points in each of those games and helping lift the Blackhawks to victory.
MINNESOTA: Could it be anyone but Devan Dubnyk? Not only was he the team’s MVP in the regular season, he’s got to be an early candidate for the Conn Smythe. Excluding the six-goal beating he took in Game 4, Dubnyk allowed just eight goals against in five games, including a shutout and consecutive games in which he allowed one goal. Of all the stars the Wild lineup boasts – Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu among them – none have shone brighter than Dubnyk.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
CHICAGO: 1. Corey Crawford was pulled in Game 1 of the first round and, when he got a chance to bounce back in Game 2, he allowed six goals. He didn’t get the net back until Game 6 and won’t have started a game in close to two weeks. 2. Holding leads was troublesome for the Blackhawks against the Predators and continuing to let momentum swing to their opponent is a dangerous way to play. In the first round, Nashville answered Chicago goals in 30 seconds twice and in under five minutes on several occasions. In the post-season, getting ahead early and staying ahead is key because eventually clutch scoring will dry up, so the Blackhawks will need to protect leads better in round two. 3. Chicago’s power play hasn’t exactly been the most beautiful sight, which is shocking considering the five-man units they’re able to throw out. On 19 opportunities against the Predators, the Blackhawks mustered three goals. Against the Wild, power plays will be hard to come across. Minnesota was shorthanded only 11 times against the St. Louis Blues and allowed two goals. If the Blackhawks want to beat Dubnyk with regularity, they might need to capitalize on what few power play chances they get.
MINNESOTA: 1. Sticking with special teams, the Minnesota power play was the most effective of any team in the first round. The Blues only gave the Wild 12 attempts with the extra man and Minnesota potted four goals on the power play, good for a 33.3 percent clip with the man advantage. In the first round, Chicago was shorthanded 22 times, the third most of any playoff team. 2. Do the big minutes ever catch up to Ryan Suter? In total, the Blackhawks and Predators played five overtime periods. If Chicago takes Minnesota to overtime early in the series, will Suter, who averaged 29 minutes per outing in the regular season and 26 minutes through the first round, be able to keep up his top-tier play late in the series? 3. Dubnyk can be the difference maker in the series, just as he has been for the Wild since being acquired in January. The Wild and Blackhawks played five times during the regular season – three times before Dubnyk arrived and twice after. In the first three outings, Chicago went 3-0 and scored 13 goals. In the last two, the Blackhawks' high-powered offense beat Dubynk once and dropped both contests.
WHAT THE STATS SAY by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
CHICAGO:The Hawks are one of the league’s best, but they aren’t without flaw. Shot suppression, shooting efficiency and the power play were the main three concerns. In their series against Nashville they found their scoring touch, but their power play continued to be abysmal and they continued to allow a lot of shots against. To go with that, the hot goaltending regressed and their penalty kill was ineffective. A lot of that has to do with playing against a very good team in Nashville, but the Wild will be just as tough to play against. The Hawks will need to step it up if they want to beat one of the league’s hottest teams.
MINNESOTA:The Wild were a very weird team this season from a possession standpoint. They started very strong, but then they yo-yoed between good and bad stretches before settling in around average. Despite the bad stretches, the Wild matched up well against the Blackhawks this season and hold the shot attempts advantage in their five games against each other. The same was true in their second round series last season where the Wild proved to be a tough out. Dubnyk can steal some games, but the Wild need to control the play to win the series. If they let up Chicago will find a way to capitalize.
KEY MATCHUP by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
Mikko Koivu will likely be tasked with shutting down Jonathan Toews in this series, which is probably one of the toughest jobs in hockey. Over the last five seasons they’ve played almost 100 minutes against each other and Toews has had the upper hand in the goals and shots department. Koivu has been the better possession player this season, but Toews has done much better at turning them into goals for his team. Koivu is a very capable player who can rise to the task like he did in last year’s playoff against Toews, but the odds aren’t in his favor.
PREDICTION: Blackhawks in six.