This is it, today is the day, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin for the Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks. The number 1 seed, President’s Trophy winning Blackhawks vs the 8th seed Minnesota Wild, who had to win on their final game to make it to the post season. Now the slates have been wiped clean, each team starts from scratch. Game 1 is tonight at the United Center in Chicago with puck drop scheduled for 7 pm Minnesota time (CST) on the NBC Sports Network. The Wild are going to have to play mistake free hockey if they hope to win tonight. Emotions will be running high for both squads and taking the series lead by winning game 1 will be the focus. Tonight the pressure is on Chicago, they’re the team expected to win. If they lose tonight it will bring on the comparisons to the Vancouver Canucks, last years top seed, who lost to the 8th seeded LA Kings in the first round. The Blackhawks won the season series with the Wild 2-0-1 and just barely out scored Minnesota 8-6 in those 3 games. The Wild won in a shootout 3-2 on January 30th ending the Blackhawks unbeaten streak to start the season. The second meeting went to Chicago 5-3 on their home ice. The final meeting on April 9th was a great game, with both squads battling for the advantage. The game came down to a single mistake, a bad cross ice pass by Clayton Stoner that was intercepted by Marian Hossa who beat Niklas Backstrom for the games only goal. That is the type of game I’m expecting tonight.
Both teams feature exceptional goal tending. The Wild will start Niklas Backstrom who had a regular season record of 24-15-3, a save % of .909 and a goals against average of 2.48. His 24 wins tied him for tops in the NHL this season. The Blackhawks will counter with the two headed goalie monster, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery who combined to win the William M. Jennings Trophy this season. Crawford will get the start in net tonight and Emery is listed as day to day with a lower body injury that is not thought to be serious. Crawford enters the playoffs with a 19-5-5 record, a .926 save %, and a 1.94 goals against avg. Emery posted an amazing 17-1-0 record with a .922 save % and a 1.94 goals against. The Wild will have Josh Harding as the backup and after his last appearance he’s a real question mark. Hards surrendered 3 goals in his first period of work after returning from IR. Hopefully he shakes off the rust and will be able to return to the form he displayed in the early part of the season.
The Wild feature an offense that generated 2.46 goals on average this year, that a full half goal less than Chicago’s 3.10. Minnesota’s top line will have to produce if they are to win tonight. Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and rookie Charlie Coyle have shown flashes of brilliance this season and inexplicable droughts as well. The Wild’s second line of Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen and Jason Zucker along with the third line of Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Brodziak, and Jason Zucker show the depth of the Wild’s lineup. Those two lines will be the difference between the top line shouldering the entire scoring burden and putting pressure on the Blackhawks 2nd and 3rd defensive pairs. The fourth line of Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell and Mike Rupp should be able to provide a solid forecheck and some speed deep in the Wild’s lineup. One name conspicuously absent from the lineup tonight is Jason Pominville. He was ruled out by Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo after he reported not feeling well today. Pominville has been out since taking an elbow to the head during a game against the LA Kings on April 23rd. His presence will be missed by the Wild tonight.
The defensive pairs for Mineesota will remain the same as the last few games with Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin leading the way. They will be doing the heavy lifting against Chicago’s top lines including such names as Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. The pair of Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella will need to make smart first passes out of the defensive zone and limit turnovers to an aggressive Blackhawk forecheck. Tom Gilbert and Clayton Stoner make up the third pair and again smart first passes along with a physical presence are musts for a Wild win.
As I’ve said over and over and over again a good, quick start is a must for Minnesota. Both of these teams thrive when they score the first goal and force their opponent to play catch up hockey. The Wild are 18-4-1 when they score first while the Blackhawks are 26-2-1 when taking the early lead. Both teams also excel when leading late in the game, the Wild are an amazing 18-1-1 when leading after two periods and Chicago is almost as good going 17-1-1 when leading to start the 3rd period. Looking at those numbers and one can see the importance of scoring first and holding a lead going into the 3rd period. While the Wild have had some impressive come from behind wins this year that is just not going to happen in this series. Additionally special teams may well be the difference in tonight’s game. The Wild are tied with two other teams for the fewest minor penalties in the league with 154, Chicago is not far behind at 163. The Minnesota penalty kill ranked 18th at 80.7% while the Blackhawks ranked 3rd at 87.2%. The power play for the Wild found the net 17.9% of the time to the Blackhawks 16.7%. All other things being even the squad that capitalizes the most on their man advantage situations will take the 1-0 series lead tonight. GonePuckWild.com will keep you informed every step of the way as your Minnesota Wild fight to the end in this seasons Stanley Cup Playoffs. I’ll be back after tonight’s action with a recap and analysis. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting, “LET’S GO WILD!! BEAT THE ‘HAWKS!!