CHICAGO – For all their accomplishments so far—the record-breaking start, the Presidents’ Trophy, the individual honours—the Chicago Blackhawks know this is the time of year that will define their season. They said the same thing all along.
Jonathan Toews and Co. also know all the reasons for concern heading into their playoff series against the Minnesota Wild.
The Blackhawks are favoured to make it to the Stanley Cup for the second time in four seasons, but the Wild bring plenty of talent into Game 1 on Tuesday night. Then there is Chicago’s recent post-season history, and the checkered performance for past winners of the Presidents’ Trophy, adding to the intrigue.
“Everyone knows, if you look at how the playoffs have gone the past couple years, if you’re the first or the eighth seed, it doesn’t really matter,” Toews said after the Blackhawks practiced at the United Center on Monday. “So as soon as Game 1 starts tomorrow, everything that happened before that is pretty meaningless and we know that.”
Minnesota was thought to be a Stanley Cup contender after it gave free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter identical 13-year, $98 million contracts last summer. But the Wild struggled when they finally got on the ice following the lockout, managing just 22 goals while sputtering to a 4-5-1 start.
They got hot in the middle of the season, winning seven in a row and 17 of 24 over one stretch, then slumped a bit at the end. With a chance to clinch a post-season spot, they lost 6-1 at home to Edmonton on Friday.
Minnesota finally secured its first playoff appearance in five years when Niklas Backstrom stopped 29 shots in a 3-1 win at Colorado on Saturday night.
“I think we expected ourselves to be in the playoffs, and I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of guys who are relaxing now and exhaling and just being satisfied that we’re here,” Parise said. “We want to win. We’re not just happy that we made it. We want to keep playing, and we think that we’re capable of it.”
The Wild could get a boost in Game 1 from the return of Jason Pominville, who missed the last two games after taking an elbow to the chin against the Los Angeles Kings. The right wing practiced on Monday, but coach Mike Yeo was tight-lipped about his status for the opener at Chicago.
Blackhawks goalie Ray Emery and centre Dave Bolland have been ruled out with lower-body injuries, but they could return for Game 2 on Friday night. Emery teamed with Corey Crawford to form the league’s best goalie tandem this season, making his absence of particular note heading into the matchup with Mikko Koivu and Minnesota.
“They’re a scary team,” forward Patrick Kane said. “You look at the talent they have, guys like Parise, Suter, Koivu, you could go on and on naming players. They got a great goaltender in Backstrom, who’s proven that he can steal games. I think we just got to worry about ourselves first and foremost, but when you’re facing a team like this, you know that they can win any game they play in.”
Kane had the winning goal in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, lifting Chicago to its first championship since 1961. But it’s been nothing but playoff heartbreak for the Blackhawks since the celebration in Philadelphia.
They were eliminated by Vancouver in seven games in the first round in 2011. They lost to Phoenix in six games in last year’s quarterfinals, when each of the first five games went to overtime.
“Even the Vancouver series two years ago, we were frustrated with the way things ended up,” defenceman Duncan Keith said. “Now two years removed now, I don’t think we can be any hungrier to have success.”
That frustration from the loss to the Coyotes turned into motivation for the Blackhawks, who set an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games of the season. They also finished strong, going 11-2-2 in their final 15 games to secure the Presidents’ Trophy awarded to the team with the most points.
“Obviously we know how good they are, and we know the season that they’ve had and we know the challenge that it is,” Yeo said. “We just have to make sure that we’re focused on ourselves.”
And about that Presidents’ Trophy.
The team with the most regular-season points has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in three of the past four years. San Jose was bounced by Anaheim in 2009, and Washington lost to Montreal three years ago. Vancouver lost to Boston in the finals in 2011, then was eliminated by Los Angeles in the first round last season.
The Kings were the eighth seed in the West when they stormed to the Cup last year, and now the Wild are hoping for a repeat performance.
“I think we should be going into these playoffs knowing that anything can happen,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We’re very respectful for our opponent. When we look at their lines and look at their lineup, it’s a dangerous team. But I’m going to be concentrating on what we have to do.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap