Playoff preview: Blackhawks-Wild

Team Records and Head-to-Head

Blackhawks – 46-21-15. 107 points. Goals F/A – 261-212. Fenwick Close – 55.2%

Wild – 43-27-12, 98 points. Goals F/A – 207-206. Fenwick Close – 48.6%

Season Matchup – The Wild won three of five matchups between the two sides while one of the decisions to fall in favor of Chicago required a shootout. Minnesota put 14 pucks past Blackhawk netminders in the five matches, while the Hawks returned the favor 15 times. Including the game that went to the skills competition, three of the contests were decided by one goal and one other by a pair. The only non-competitive game was the teams’ second head-to-head battle, which was incidentally the return leg of a home and home in the season’s first month. After the Wild won 5-3 in Chicago, the Hawks responded with a 5-1 thrashing two nights later in St. Paul. Without taking score effects into account, the Blackhawks tended to control the puck more often in their matchups, outshooting the Wild over the five games by a combined 143-124.

Of potential interest for the second round is that, while the Wild faced starting goalie Corey Crawford in four of the five games, the Blackhawks got to experience four different Minnesota goalies. The aforementioned blowout came with Nicklas Backstrom in net. Depending on the health of the current incumbent, Darcy Kuemper, who had to leave Minnesota’s game 7 triumph against the Colorado Avalanche in the third with an apparent head injury, the Wild will either go with the rookie, who stopped 33 of 34 shots in his only previous matchup against Chicago, or veteran Ilya Bryzgalov, who stopped 24 of 26 in the final matchup between the two teams, before losing in the shootout.

Offense GVT

Chicago – 41.9 GVT (2nd)

Minnesota – -20.1 (25th)

Advantage – Chicago – 62

Interestingly enough, this is not the biggest offensive disparity in the second round, as the top goal scoring team (Anaheim) will be playing number 26 (Los Angeles) in the other Western Conference semi-final. The Blackhawks were contained in their first round matchup against St. Louis more than is typical, as their two most effective even strength scorers from the regular season, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, were nullified, with a combined 3 points in the six game set. With Minnesota not being as strong in the back as St. Louis, expect those two to return to their historical pace.

The comparative scoring depth between the two squads can be neatly seen in looking at the number of regulars who were able to exceed the rule of thumb scoring rate for top six forwards of 1.75 even strength points per 60 minutes. Chicago had eight of those while Minnesota could only muster five, and one of those, Erik Haula, was generally given fourth line minutes. The Wild will need their third line of Dany Heatley, Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak to continue to produce like they did in the seventh game thriller against Colorado to have a chance to keeping pace with the well-stocked ammunition of Chicago.

Defense GVT

Chicago – 17.5 Defensive GVT (6th), -12.6 Goaltending GVT (25th). 4.9 total defensive GVT

Minnesota – 18.9 defensive GVT (5th), 3.6 Goaltending GVT (13th). 22.5 total defensive GVT

Advantage – Minnesota – 17.6

While the Wild do not push play overly well, they did a remarkable job in the first round of preventing their opponent from doing so. Through their seven game series, they only allowed 30.5 Fenwick Events per 60 minutes (all shots on net that were not blocked in even strength and close situations), considerably better than the second best team and nearly ten fewer per 60 minutes than the Blackhawks allowed to St. Louis.

Although this did not hold through the first round, the Blackhawks are one of the better team in the NHL at driving play forward, with Hossa, Sharp and Patrick Kane among the best in the NHL at tilting the ice in their favor. In other words, this series may be a case of irresistible force (Chicago) meeting unmovable object (Minnesota).

A few caveats to the above to keep in mind. As mentioned already, the Minnesota goaltending situation may be in flux with Kuemper’s health an unknown. Further, the Wild’s third defensive pairing, made up of Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner, can be exploited. Look for the Blackhawks to try to gain favorable matchups against that pair when the series is in Chicago. The Avalanche were unable to put their top lines against Prosser and Stoner with any level of frequency and that may have been the difference in the first round.

PP/PK GVT

Chicago – 4.5 power play GVT (19.5% success rate), 1.1 shorthanded GVT (81.4% success rate)

Minnesota – -1.8 power play GVT (17.9% success rate). -10.6 shorthanded GVT (78.8% success rate)

Special Teams advantage – Chicago – 18

It isn’t so much that the Hawks were dominant on specials teams this year. They were decidedly not. The fact is, however, that Minnesota had incredibly poor special teams throughout the year, ranking 16th on the power play and a lowly 26th on the PK. In fact, the Wild PK was the worst to make the playoffs.

That said, special teams will likely play a very minimal factor in this series as both teams were among the most disciplined in the league, with the Blackhawks taking the second fewest minor penalties leaguewide and Minnesota ranking eighth by that metric.

Key match-up

Minnesota’s top line against Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya

Chicago’s shut-down pairing can be hemmed in their own zone, but they have been effective all season at preventing pucks from going in the net, if not from going towards the net. In six games against St. Louis, the duo most often faced the line of Alexander Steen, T. J. Oshie and David Backes. That line was held to three goals, around half of their regular season rate of goals per game. They will likely be tasked with neutralizing the line of Wild’s top line consisting of Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville in the second round. If they are as successful in this task as they were against the Blues, this series will be over quick.

Key stat

Even Strength GF/GA. Blackhawks +34, Wild +15

As mentioned above, this series is expected to be played out at even strength more so than any other in the second round with two teams full of disciplined skaters (Brent Seabrook’s dirty hit on David Backes in round one notwithstanding). In fact, they are the two most disciplined teams still standing. The even strength scoring rate of Chicago is clearly superior to that of Minnesota and that will continue to make a big difference here.

Prediction

Blackhawks in six. The Wild are strong at home and should win at least one of games 3 and 4 with the ability to dictate matchups. It will not be enough to knock off the defending champs and the series is more likely to be over in five games than to require seven.

 

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*