By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) After seeing their favorite team eliminate the hated St. Louis Blues on Sunday, Blackhawk Nation (is that a thing yet?) had to wait until late Wednesday night to find out who their defending Stanley Cup champions would face in the second round of the playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild were locked in an intense series that went the distance, and then some.
It took until 5:02 into overtime of Game 7 for Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter (who I loved in Three Amigos, by the way) to eliminate the Avs on a 2-on-1 rush. It was that moment that the Western Conference semifinal matchup was born. The Blackhawks will face the Wild for the second consecutive postseason.
Last season, the Blackhawks opened the playoffs against the Wild. After a sluggish start to Game 1, Chicago got the win, found its legs and won the series in five games. This Wild team is much better than that 2013 squad. While I fully expect the Blackhawks to win the series, it won’t be as easy as last season. The Wild have added a number of quality players and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Now, let’s break down the matchups:
The new face of the Wild is Team USA Olympian and long-time New Jersey Devil Zach Parise, who is one of those players who does everything right. He registered 10 points in the seven-game series against Colorado and finished second on the team with 56 points in 64 games. Jason Pominville’s 60 points led the Wild, but he did it in 15 more games than Parise.
The Wild acquired Pominville late last season, and he’s been a solid addition to a team that was offensively challenged. Captain Mikko Koivu, young center Mikael Granlund, veteran Dany Heatley, Matt Moulson and Niederreiter add to the forward scoring depth.
Center Charlie Coyle has been a playoff revelation, and he could play a big factor in the series with Chicago.
Blackhawks players will need to keep their eye out for Matt Cooke, a guy who should be mentioned in the same breath as Raffi Torres. He’s a dirty player with a terrible history. He’s currently serving a seven-game suspension for his knee-to-knee hit on Colorado’s Tyson Barrie.
C0oke is eligible to return for Game 4 of the series with the Blackhawks. Earlier this season, he had claimed to be “reformed.” We’ll see if this recent suspension neuters him against the Blackhawks. Either way, the Blackhawks need to keep their collective heads up when he’s on the ice.
Ryan Suter. He’s good.
During the regular season, there was no one close to Suter in minutes per game. He led the league, averaging 29:24. The closest player to him was Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who averaged 27:04. Suter’s as reliable defensively as they come in the league these days. Expect him on the ice all the time, in all situations.
Suter’s partner, Jonas Brodin, is quickly developing into one of the league’s better young defenseman. He’s another player with ability in both zones.
The issue for the Wild comes after their top pair. The Blackhawks roll out three, sometimes four lines that can score. While the Suter/Brodin pair is solid, they can only defend one line at a time. The second pair of Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon played well against Colorado, but I’m not sure that can last against Chicago.
The bottom pair of Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner have some ability. Both D-men are tough and physical. Net presence will have to be earned the hard way when these two are on the ice.
The Wild have played five different goalies this season. Most recently, the ginormous Darcy Kuemper has been the man. At 6-foot-5, he takes up a ton of the net. Combine his size with his sound positioning, and you have a tough goalie. However, he was forced to exit Game 7 in Colorado with an injury. At this point, we don’t know his status for Game 1, but expect him to play at some point in the series.
If Kuemper can’t go, Ilya Bryzgalov will get the call. The Wild acquired him at this year’s deadline, and he was decent down the stretch but was awful in Games 1 and 2 of the Colorado series. He allowed eight goals on 46 shots in those two games, which is good for a .826 save percentage. That’s awful. If he’s forced into action for more than a game or two, the Wild’s slim chances become even worse.
The Blackhawks’ big edge in this series is their depth. That’s obviously nothing new, as they’re the deepest team in the league. However, with other opponents, you can usually find an advantage for the opponent somewhere. The Blues were more physical. The Avalanche would have had a potential advantage in speed and in goal.
There is literally nothing the Wild do better than the Blackhawks.
Prediction : Blackhawks in 5.
Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.
Be sure to tune in to 670 The Score after Game 1 wraps up Friday. Joe Ostrowski and Jay Zawaski will be on the air taking your postgame calls, texts, tweets, faxes, snapchats, mySpace messages and carrier pigeon messages.