The best time of year for a hockey fan is upon us. Ice has been resurfaced, nightly schedules cleared out, and men everywhere have cold, baby-like faces for a few days. This season brings two full months of Stanley Cup Playoff action, and it begins Tuesday night in the Madhouse.
The Minnesota Wild may have slid into the final playoff spot in the West, but Chicago is not going to sit back and rest easy. Despite many calling Chicago the Stanley Cup favorite, the Blackhawks must stay focused and play Minnesota as if their 1st and 8th place roles are reversed. The playoffs mean that the regular season is behind everyone, and moving forward is the only thing that matters. No longer can an eighth-seed be laughed off, even by a first-place team. But Chicago is motivated to advance past the first round for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Tonight’s match-up is the first of a possible seven games. The first to win four games advances and the other is eliminated. Chicago looks to grab the first bit of momentum as Minnesota enters the Madhouse on Madison Tuesday night. The last time these two teams met in the postseason was in 1991, when the Wild were called the Minnesota North Stars. In a potential twist of fate we’ll have to stay tuned to find out, the top-seeded Blackhawks lost to the 8th seed North Stars in that series.
Chicago is 2 – 0 – 1 in the regular season against the Wild, grabbing 4 out of 4 points after dropping a shootout loss in January. In that series, Chicago goals were scored by Bickell, Hossa, Saad, Toews, Kane, and Shaw. If anything, Chicago has proven that more than just the top two lines can score. Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi combined for four points (2G, 2A) in three games against Chicago this season.
Chicago’s Power Play still struggles – it has struggled consistently over the past two seasons – but it’s Penalty Kill has been phenomenal. At 87.2%, Chicago’s PK is third in the league and its road PK is the best in the NHL. The Madhouse Gang is going to need that production to stay high because Minnesota has the second highest road PP percentage in the league. Chicago, however, was tied with the New York Rangers as the least penalized team in the NHL during the regular season. Staying out of the box and a solid PK will help Chicago stifle Minnesota’s road PP.
The production on defense will be key in a Blackhawks victory all throughout the series. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the big story-makers for Chicago, especially after helping the team to a 2010 Stanley Cup victory. But the play of Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya has been spectacular this season. Oduya has the ability to break up an odd-man rush even after he was out of position. Or, better yet, he can break up the rush even when someone else drops the ball. And Nick Leddy carries the puck into the zone when a line change is needed or the Hawks are up against a tight blue line like a 12-year veteran. Against the newly acquired Ryan Suter, Leddy’s offense-on-defense capability will be a deciding factor in Chicago’s play throughout the series.
Ray Emery has a lower-body injury that seems to have made Joel Quenneville’s primary goaltender dilemma easier for him. Chicago has recalled Henrik Karlsson from Rockford to backup Corey Crawford, who has racked up a 5 – 8 record through 14 career postseason contests. Bolland will also be out tonight and Quenneville has not indicated a precise return date.
Patrick Sharp practiced with the team yesterday, skating with Handzus and Kane on the second line according to Tracy Myers of CSNChicago. Sharp missed almost the entire second half of the season with an aggravating upper-body injury but appears to have returned to form in time for the playoffs. His presence on the ice will force the Minnesota defense to take fewer liberties and account for his dangerous wrist shot.
Chicago and Minnesota are in for a, ahem, Wild series that begins in the United Center Tuesday night. Stay tuned to ChiCitySports for continued coverage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and tweet me your predictions!