CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS VERSUS MINNESOTA WILD
When the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks played against each other in the first round last year, it was a largely one-sided affair. Chicago won in five games en route to winning its second Stanley Cup championship in four years.
This year’s Blackhawks are almost identical to their 2013 counterparts and given that the team is relatively healthy and coming off a strong performance against the tough St. Louis Blues, there isn’t much reason to believe Chicago is any less dangerous this time around. If there’s been a major change, it’s been on the Wild’s end.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would argue that’s the case.
"It is definitely a different team," Quenneville said, according to CSN Chicago. "You've got to commend them on how they played at the end of the year to get themselves in the playoffs. Had a great run and had a lot of momentum going into that series, and they played a great series."
Minnesota definitely had a great series. Colorado got truly great performances out of Paul Stastny and rookie Nathan MacKinnon, but the Wild kept coming back until finally 21-year-old forward Nino Niederreiter ended the series in overtime during Game 7.
The Wild’s perseverance was remarkable, but it will take a lot more than that to beat Chicago. Especially seeing as Minnesota’s goaltending situation is a bit of a mess. Their top two netminders, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, missed the entire first round and Darcy Kuemper left Game 7 in the third period.
That leaves the Wild with Ilya Bryzgalov, who got beat up pretty badly in the first two games of the Wild’s series against the Avalanche. He’s incredibly unpredictable as a goaltender and will have a tough time holding the Blackhawks’ offense at bay.
Matching teams in high scoring games wasn’t something the Wild were known for during the regular season as they averaged just 2.43 minutes per game, but they’re capable of it all the same. Or at least, they are if their secondary scorers step up.
Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu can only do so much. The Wild got support from their younger forwards like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Niederreiter in the first round and they need more of the same going forward.
If Dany Heatley can build off his three-point Game 7, then that would be a big bonus for them.
All the same, it’s hard to bet against the defending Stanley Cup champions in a series where they have such a big edge in offense, experience, and – due to injuries – goaltending. I’m looking for Chicago to beat Minnesota in six games.
Jonathan Toews netted an incredible three game-winning goals in the first round. He's also tied for the team lead with seven points in six playoff contests.
Patrick Sharp ended his drought on Sunday by scoring a goal, but before then he had no points in five postseason contests.
Although the Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup in two of their previous four years, they lost in the first round their other two seasons. So that trend of first round exits or Stanley Cup wins will either come to an end or they'll end up with another championship.
Chicago might deal with fatigue as it pushes onward with its second lengthy playoff run in as many years, but one thing they aren't is hurt. Backup goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin (shoulder) is the only member of the squad that's on the sidelines.
The Blackhawks had a 93.1% success rate when killing penalties against St. Louis in the first round. Given that the Wild have been a rather middle-of-the-road team with the man advantage, the Blackhawks might enjoy a similar level of success against them.
Note - Should fourth-string Bryzgalov or fifth-string Curry go down with an injury before third-string Darcy Kuemper is ready to return, then the Wild's goaltending vacancy will revert to the dibs system. Related to that, I call dibs.
Nino Niederreiter did just score two goals in Game 7, including the overtime winner, so he's probably feeling confident going into this series. Surprisingly, Dany Heatley should be too after recording a goal and five points in five playoff games.
Matt Moulson was largely ineffective in the first round with just a goal and an assist in seven contests. That brings him down to five points in 13 career postseason contests.
Minnesota has only faced four different teams in its eight playoff series, including this one. It played against Colorado for the third time in its franchise history and now the Wild will face the Blackhawks for the second time in as many years.
This is the first time since 2003 that the Wild have advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
The Wild will miss Matt Cooke (suspension) for the first three games of this series. As previously mentioned, they are also without goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Third-string goaltender Darcy Kuemper should be regarded as doubtful for Game 1.
LOS ANGELES KINGS VERSUS ANAHEIM DUCKS
Early in the first round, it looked like the Los Angeles Kings ran out of magic. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and getting to the Western Conference Final in 2013, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick suddenly looked beatable in the playoffs as the Sharks obliterated them by a score of 13-5 over the first two games.
The gap narrowed in Game 3, but the Sharks still managed to edge them out to gain a 3-0 series lead. Then one of the best playoff teams started playing like it and against the NHL’s famous postseason chokers, history was made.
Los Angeles became just the fourth team in history to overcome a 3-0 series lead and while the Sharks deserve some of the blame, Los Angeles made it clear that they’re not a team that you can ever be comfortable around.
The same might be said of the Anaheim Ducks, who advanced to the second round by scoring two goals in the final 2:10 minutes of the third period of Game 6 to force overtime. Nick Bonino netted the winner for Anaheim to complete the stunning comeback.
That game also highlighted the Ducks’ biggest concern though. The Ducks opted to start Frederik Andersen in the playoffs over veteran Jonas Hiller and it nearly cost them the series. Andersen had a 3.40 GAA and .892 save percentage in the first round and was pulled twice, including in Game 6. Hiller took over in the deciding contest and turned aside all 12 shots he faced.
Anaheim’s best bet might be to go with Hiller, but he hasn’t exactly been a rock this season, which is why the Ducks tried to run with Andersen in the first place.
Offensively, these teams both have plenty of weapons. Mike Richards was a disappoint against San Jose, but that still left Los Angeles with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, and Marian Gaborik. All three of them recorded at least five points each in the first round. Justin Williams and Tyler Toffoli had six and five points respectively, giving the Kings plenty of secondary scoring.
That being said, this is one area that the Ducks might have an edge in. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were arguably the best offensive duo in the regular season. Nick Bonino, Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Cogliano, and Patrick Maroon each recorded four points in the first round to back up the Ducks’ superstars.
Teemu Selanne, 43, is a bit of an X-Factor. He had two assists in Game 6, but was otherwise quiet in the Ducks’ series against Dallas. He didn’t get much playing time either and was even scratched in Game 4. His playing career ends whenever the Ducks get eliminated and it will be interesting to see if the 2014 Winter Olympic MVP has at least one last big game left in him.
The Ducks and Kings played against each other five times in the regular season and Anaheim won four of those matchups. The one exception was the Kings’ shootout victory in December that went nine rounds. Anaheim isn’t a team that should be intimidated by its geographical rival’s past success. The Kings aren’t a team that can be taken lightly, but the Ducks are capable of edging them out in seven games.
As previously mentioned, Frederik Andersen was pulled twice in the first round and finished with a 3.40 GAA and .892 save percentage in six starts. Saku Koivu had one assist and a minus-three rating in six games in the first round.
This is the first time the Ducks have won a playoff series since 2009.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, who previously worked for the Washington Capitals, has never advanced past the second round as a head coach.
Anaheim tended to be a fast starting team in the first round, with nine of their 19 goals coming in the first period. That contrasts their regular season, where they outscored competitors 75-69 in the first period and 188-134 after that.
The Ducks' first-round victory has extended the career of Teemu Selanne, who will retire after this year's playoff run. He has now participated in 123 career postseason contests.
Anze Kopitar has four goals and 10 points in seven playoff games. That's a nice bounce back for him after he ended up with just nine points in 18 playoff contests in 2013.
Mike Richards had just one assist in seven games in the first round. He ended up averaging just 15:35 minutes per contest and hit a low in Game 6 when he was on the ice for just 11:49 minutes.
Los Angeles has now advanced to at least the second round for three straight years. They are also 7-1 in playoff series since Darryl Sutter took over as head coach.
The Kings and Ducks are natural geographical rivals, but this is the first time they have ever faced each other in the playoffs.
Out of the three other teams that overcame a 3-0 series deficit, only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Of course, that's because the Maple Leafs pulled off that feat in the Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. The 1975 New York Islanders lost in the Semi-Finals and the 2000 Philadelphia Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup Final.