Even from the very early stages of this lockout-shortened season it was evident the Chicago Blackhawks were playing at a higher level than most NHL teams.
Chicago busted out of the gates with an NHL-record 24-game point streak (21-0-3) and from there cruised to its first Central Division title since 2009-10, when the Blackhawks secured the franchise's first Stanley Cup title in nearly half a century.
Due to salary-cap constraints, however, the Blackhawks were forced to part with several important players from that championship team, including starting goaltender Antti Niemi and then-forward Dustin Byfuglien, who has since gone on to become a star defenseman with the Winnipeg Jets.
The roster overhaul led to Chicago losing in the first round of the playoffs in two straight years following the championship season, but general manager Stan Bowman seems to have finally recovered the depth lost in the offseason between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns.
The tough decisions the Blackhawks were forced to make after winning it all set the club back for a few years, but they also allowed Chicago to keep much of its talented core intact. Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland and defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson all helped Chicago lift the cup three years ago and head coach Joel Quenneville will rely heavily on that postseason experience this spring.
While Chicago filled in the rest of the blanks with journeymen players for a few years, this edition of the 'Hawks has benefited from an influx of homegrown talent, especially up front where forwards Brandon Saad (2nd round, 2011 draft) and Andrew Shaw (5th round, 2011) have meshed well with the existing group. There's also a homegrown element in net with goaltender Corey Crawford (2nd round, 2003) and on defense thanks to the emergence of Nick Leddy (1st round, 2009).
The development of those players combined with the Blackhawks' established core group from the championship season helped Chicago win the Presidents' Trophy for the first time since 1990-91.
Kane and Toews turned in superb regular seasons for Chicago, each scoring 23 goals to tie for the team lead. Kane paced the team with 55 points, while Toews had 48 points and also finished tied for third in the NHL with a plus-28 rating. Both players are borderline Hart Trophy candidates and team captain Toews, who earned the Conn Smythe when Chicago won it all in 2010, is one of the leading choices to win the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forwards.
Hossa battled some injuries along the way but still managed to finish third on the team in both goals (17) and points (31). The Slovakian veteran has the most career playoff points of any Blackhawk, with 36 goals and 61 assists for 97 points over 130 games.
Sharp also missed considerable time down the stretch with an injury, but he returned before the end of the regular season and will be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs. He had six goals and 14 assists in 28 games this season, but is second to Hossa on Chicago's roster with 23 career playoff goals.
Saad, meanwhile, turned in a strong rookie campaign with 10 goals and 17 assists over 46 games, but this will be the 20-year-old's first foray into the NHL playoffs.
Chicago had six defensemen reach double digits in points and it was led by Keith -- the 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner -- who had 27 points (3 goals, 24 assists) while leading the team with an average of 24 minutes and 6 seconds of ice time per game.
Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya all averaged over 20 minutes of ice time for Quenneville this season, while Leddy recorded six goals and 12 assists while logging just 17:25 of ice time per night.
Chicago's depth at both ends helped the team finish third in the NHL in penalty killing this season, but the club was ranked 19th on the power play. The Blackhawks were tied for fourth in the league with five short-handed goals, including two from Toews. Overall, Chicago was second in the league with 3.10 goals scored per game.
The Blackhawks had the NHL's best goaltending tandem in 2013, as Crawford and Ray Emery combined to allow a league-low 102 goals this season. Both goaltenders recorded identical 1.94 goals against averages, but Emery was 17-1-0 while Crawford went 19-5-5.
With Emery bothered by a lower body injury at the end of the regular season, Crawford expects to start at the beginning of the playoffs. However, Emery should be an available option for Quenneville in the opening round and he could make a switch if Crawford stumbles. Last spring, Crawford posted a 2.58 GAA and a poor .893 save percentage in six games as Chicago fell to Phoenix in the opening round.
"I've prepared myself all year pretty well, so I'm just going to try and do the same thing I've done all year long," Crawford said on Monday.
Emery is 20-15 with a 2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage in 36 career playoff games.
MINNESOTA WILD (8th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 26-19-3
2012 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify
(Sports Network) - When the Wild announced the dual signings of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts last summer, ending the team's four-year playoff drought seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Of course, Minnesota did make its first postseason since 2008, but it wasn't nearly as easy a road as originally expected.
In the end, the Wild needed a 3-1 victory over Colorado in their final game of the regular season to nail down the eighth seed in the West, holding off a late charge from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Wild's tough slog to the postseason is not a poor reflection on either of the high-priced free agents, as both Parise and Suter fared well in their first seasons in Minnesota.
Parise, who previously spent his entire career as a prominent winger for the New Jersey Devils, led the Wild in both goals (18) and points (38) this season. The 28-year-old Minnesota native is a year removed from helping New Jersey make it to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, where it lost in six games to Los Angeles.
Suter, meanwhile, left former defensive partner Shea Weber behind in Nashville and did just fine outside of the Music City, turning in a campaign that could make him a finalist for the Norris. His 32 points (4G, 28A) this season more than doubled the output of Jared Spurgeon, who finished next on the Minnesota blue line with 15 points on five goals and 10 assists.
Although the addition of Parise and Suter helped improve the Wild, the club is still dogged by depth issues at both ends of the ice. The problem was exacerbated when winger Dany Heatley, the club's leading scorer in 2011-12, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in April.
Another one of the club's key forwards, Jason Pominville, was acquired from Buffalo at the trade deadline, but he enters the postseason with a concussion and is questionable for the start of the first round.
Team captain and valuable two-way centerman Mikko Koivu was second to Parise with 37 points this season on 11 goals and 26 assists. Although he hasn't participated in the playoffs since Minnesota's last trip in 2008, the Finn does have five goals in 11 postseason games.
The Wild also will rely on winger Devin Setoguchi for production. He finished with 13 goals and 27 points in 48 games for Minnesota this season.
Minnesota finished tied for 22nd in the league in scoring with 2.46 goals per game and the power play was ranked 16th. The Wild were also middle of the pack in team defense, surrendering an average of 2.60 goals per game to tie them for 15th in the league.
Head coach Mike Yeo relied heavily on Suter this season, as the blueliner led all NHLers in average ice time at 27:16 per game. That number could soar into the 30s in the playoffs, as an overmatched Minnesota defense tries to compete with the Blackhawks' talented group of forwards.
Suter was mainly paired with 19-year-old rookie Jonas Brodin, who led all first-year defensemen in ice time (23:12) and also notched two goals and nine assists while sporting a plus-three rating over 45 games. However, Brodin, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is the youngest defenseman in the NHL and his lack of experience could hurt Minnesota this postseason.
Spurgeon and Brett Clark make up a less-than-impressive second pairing for Minnesota, while Clayton Stoner and Tom Gilbert primarily serve roles as shot- blockers for the Wild.
There are also concerns in the crease, as 35-year-old starter Niklas Backstrom brings a lifetime playoff record of 3-8 into this postseason. Backstrom was a workhorse all season long for the Wild, starting 41 of the team's 48 games and recording a 24-15-3 record and 2.48 GAA.
Yeo likely will have to sink or swim with Backstrom, as both of his backup options -- Darcy Kuemper or Josh Harding -- offer little in the way of playoff experience.
Although the Blackhawks and Minnesota North Stars faced off six times in the playoffs over a 10-year stretch from 1982-91, this will mark the first postseason encounter between Chicago and the Wild.
The Blackhawks won two of three meetings against Minnesota during the season series and Chicago also gained a point in the only loss, a 3-2 shootout setback in St. Paul on Jan. 30. Chicago also recorded a 5-3 home win against the Wild on March 5 and Emery backstopped the Blackhawks to a 1-0 road victory in Minnesota on April 9.
Hossa and Bryan Bickell led Chicago with two goals and an assist in the season series against Minnesota, while Toews and Saad added one goal and two helpers apiece.
Setoguchi and Matt Cullen were the only Wild players to record multiple points against the Blackhawks this season, as they both posted a goal and one assist.
Crawford went 1-0-1 with a 2.40 GAA vs. the Wild. Backstrom was 1-2-0 with a 2.19 GAA in the season series.
With a 36-7-5 record and an NHL-best goal differential of plus-53, the Blackhawks would've entered the postseason as heavy favorites against whichever team they met in the first round. Considering Minnesota's lack of depth compared to this loaded Chicago club, there's a good chance this series will be over in a hurry.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 5