The Minnesota Wild will face the Chicago Blackhawks for the third postseason in a row. However, with Chicago not looking like the powerhouse they've been in previous years and Minnesota significantly improved over last year, this could be a much different series than last year's second round battle. Here are five storylines to follow in Round 2.
1. Chicago's Goaltending
Chicago got great goaltending this season. Their team save percentage (Sv%) on the season at 5-on-5 was 93.5%. That's the second best mark in the NHL,just 0.1% behind the Montreal Canadiens and what is likely to be a MVP performance from Carey Price. It was done through three goaltenders have very good seasons, with Corey Crawford posting an all situation Sv% of 92.4% through 57 games. Scott Darling and Antti Raanta both posted a 93.6% Sv% in 14 games each.
However, in the first round things were closer to a rummage sale with all sorts of garbage strewn across the front lawn. Crawford was pulled in Game 1 after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Scott Darling came in and set records, stopping all 42 shots he faced, leading the team to an overtime victory.
Coach Joel Quennville went back to Crawford for Game 2, but he allowed six goals on 35 shots, paving the way for Darling to take the reins in Game 3. Darling performed well until Game 5 where he allowed four goals on 28 shots in a Nashville win. He started Game 6 by allowing three goals on 12 shots before getting pulled and seeing Crawford take the net back. Crawford performed well in relief and is getting the start in Game 1 against Minnesota.
Chicago pushed through and beat the Predators, but it's easy to see how this kind of inconsistency could lead to a second round exit and definitely isn't the stuff Stanley Cup Championships are built of. I'd also argue that the Predators might be a somewhat easier match-up for Chicago, given their late-season struggles. Goaltending will be a storyline in the series and whether Crawford is up to the task of carrying the team through the full series is in question. It's a bit of a no brainer to give him the start, but you have to imagine that his leash is short.
He'll get a chance to bounce back though. The Wild, though they played a very good team who is one of the stronger defensive teams in the league, they only managed to take 21.8 shots for per 60 minutes of even strength play (SF60). That's the second lowest mark in the opening round. For their part, Chicago allowed 32.8 shots against per 60 minutes of even strength play (SA60), which was the worst mark in the opening round. They also allowed a league worst 15 goals in the opening round. It's hard to say how that plays out, but if the Wild can't manage to get more offense going, Crawford might pull a Stella and get his... never mind. I'm not doing it. Crawford might play well.
2. The Wild's Fourth Line
Depth at large is going to be key in this series, but we'll dig into that more broadly in a moment. The Wild's fourth line is of note because it's makeup isn't entirely clear. Erik Haula was great in the series against Chicago last year, Jordan Schroeder has had a hell of a year offensively and defensively, Matt Cooke was fantastic in Game 6 against St. Louis (and is likely to be on the ice in Game 1), Sean Bergenheim is a possession machine with past playoff success, and Ryan Carter provides a solid penalty killer. They're all essentially battling for one spot on the fourth line playing wing with Kyle Brodziak at center and Justin Fontaine on the opposite wing.
With the kind of depth the Wild have on forward, the leash on depth guys will be short. I think the depth is a good thing. Competition between teammates is a good thing. However, with short leashes it could prevent anyone from getting into a groove and having a solid chance at making the Wild's fourth line a scoring threat in the series. That matters because....
3. Depth Scoring
It's tough to say that the Wild outmatch the Blackhawks' forwards in the top six when they boast Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, and Brandon Saad as potential top six players. (Top two lines are likely to look like this: Saad-Toews-Hossa, Bickell-Richards-Kane. Third line is also dangerous with Sharp-Vermette-Teravainen in its current configuration. This arrangement spreads the wealth a bit.) The Wild's top six is thorough and will certainly compete, but the elite players on Chicago are a step above. The Wild don't have a Toews or a Kane.
However, it's the bottom two lines where the Wild may be able to outmatch Chicago. The third line with Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and Thomas Vanek has speed, size, and two players who are serious scoring threats. Vanek has been patchy and didn't score in the opening round, but there's no doubt that he has the ability to become a major factor. Zucker continues to be underrated around the league despite posting a G/60 of 1.57 at even strength this season. That's second only to Rick Nash across the league.
Chicago's fourth line (Desjardins-Kruger-Shaw is likely) could be outmatched comparatively (since they probably aren't going head-to-head) if the Wild can get a steady group on the fourth line. Kyle Brodziak centering the wildly underrated Justin Fontaine and one of the guys we talked about above could help make a difference in this series.
4. Home Ice Advantage
This is the third season in a row that the Wild will face the Blackhawks in the postseason. In their previous two meetings the Wild haven't won a single game in Chicago. But at 24-15-2, the Wild set a franchise record for the best away points percentage this season. They finished the season, prior to a season finale loss in St. Louis, with a franchise record run of road wins.
With Chicago having home ice advantage, they'll obviously need to win one on the road, but doing it early could shift the balance of the series. The Wild did it to St. Louis, winning Game 1 on the road. Doing it again could give the Wild the early edge they'll need to beat a deep Hawks team who was just 24-12-5 at home this year.
It will matter as well because the Wild haven't been the home ice behemoth that they've been in previous seasons. They went just 22-13-6 in Xcel this year, struggled at home late in the season, and lost one game to St. Louis in St. Paul during their opening round series.
5. Special teams
Both teams have a strong penalty kill, which will be crucial. The Wild finished with the top penalty kill in the NHL, in no small part thanks to Devan Dubnyk. Chicago finished 10th.
Championships generally aren't built on a strong power play, but with both teams playing well on the penalty kill, a strong power play could steal a game. Chicago finished 20th in the league with a 17.6% success rate on the power play this season. The Wild were even worse, ranking 27th with a 15.8% success rate, the second lowest of all playoff teams.
While the opening round is a small sample, there was a little reason for hope. The Wild finished the opening round with the best power play in the league at 33.3%. Surprisingly it was the second unit who has looked the most dominant with the man advantage. They've held the zone well and generated opportunities. It's not required to win this series, but few would be surprised if a power play goal or two was the reason one team came out of a game on top.