Published April 29, 2015
(SportsNetwork.com) - Heading into the 2014-15 season the two favorites to win the Western Conference title were the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.
However, a year after beating Chicago in the conference finals and winning its second Stanley Cup in three seasons, the Kings failed to make the postseason altogether. That left the Blackhawks as the heavy favorite to win the West and potentially claim their third Cup in six seasons.
Chicago began its 2015 playoff run with a six-game victory over the Nashville Predators. It wasn't a dominating performance by any means and it could dissuade some people from picking the Blackhawks to win it all.
The Blackhawks didn't earn many style points in downing the Predators. In the end, the 2010 and '13 Cup champions were able to fight through bad starts and shaky goaltending to advance past the first round for a third straight year.
The bad news was Chicago allowed Nashville to score 21 times through six games. The good news: only 10 of those goals came after the first period. The Blackhawks and Predators were tied at 10-10 in scoring over the second and third periods, but the big difference was Chicago won both times the teams played beyond regulation.
Head coach Joel Quenneville will go with Corey Crawford over Scott Darling in net to start the second round. Crawford struggled mightily as the No. 1 option to begin the series with Nashville, but he later bailed out Darling in Game 6, stopping all 13 shots to pick up the round-clinching victory.
Crawford has the edge in playoff experience after anchoring Chicago's Cup run in 2013, but he gave up nine goals on just 60 shots in the opening round. Darling, meanwhile, posted a 2.21 goals against average and .936 save percentage against Nashville despite yielding three goals on nine shots before getting yanked from Game 6.
To be fair, Chicago's problems in Round 1 extended beyond the crease. The club's defensemen, particularly depth guys like Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival, who combined for a minus-six rating, struggled to limit Nashville's chances in the offensive zone.
Making up for the defensive lapses, however, were Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who paced the blue line with seven and four points, respectively. Keith averaged over 32 minutes of ice time per game and finished with two goals and five assists.
Oduya, Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson each logged over 25 minutes of ice time per game versus the Predators. Meanwhile, 40-year-old defenseman Kimmo Timonen was used for only 10 minutes, 22 seconds on average.
Chicago's star forwards clearly were its strength against the Preds. Captain and top centerman Jonathan Toews led the team with eight points on three goals and five assists, while speedy winger Patrick Kane had two goals and five helpers.
Kane had missed the final 21 games of the regular season with a shoulder injury, but made his return for the playoff opener and seemed no worse for wear. The 2013 Conn Smythe winner has amassed 98 points (39G, 59A) over 99 career playoff games.
Patrick Sharp added three goals and two assists in the opening round, while Marian Hossa provided five helpers. Hossa hasn't scored a goal in 12 straight games dating back to the regular season and is mired in an 18-game playoff goal-scoring drought.
Brandon Saad recorded two goals for the Blackhawks to follow up his best regular season as an NHLer with a solid showing in the first round. The 22- year-old recorded career bests in both goals (23) and assists (29) while playing in all 82 games in 2014-15.
In addition to the star players, Chicago boasts tremendous all-around depth up front. Additional forwards like Bryan Bickell, Brad Richards, Andrew Shaw, Antoine Vermette and Kris Versteeg allow Quenneville to roll with four lines and give the opposing defense all it can handle.
Despite all its scoring depth, the Blackhawks have struggled on the power play. They were ranked 20th in the league with a success rate of 17.6 percent during the regular season, and against Nashville they scored three times on 19 chances with the man advantage (15.8 percent).
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 46-28-8 (1st Wild Card)
2015 PLAYOFFS: Defeated St. Louis 4-2 in conference quarterfinals
For a second straight spring, the Minnesota Wild found themselves matched up with the Central Division champions in the opening round of the playoffs. Just like in 2014, the Wild showed the division title guaranteed nothing in the postseason.
The Wild ousted the Colorado Avalanche last season before losing in six games to the Blackhawks in the conference quarterfinals. This time around, Minnesota beat St. Louis in six games to earn a second-round rematch with Chicago and the upcoming series will mark the third straight season with a playoff series between the Blackhawks and Wild.
One difference for Minnesota in 2015 is the situation in net. The Wild faced Chicago last year with Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes, but expect to be in much better shape this spring thanks to the mid-season acquisition of Devan Dubnyk.
The often shaky Bryzgalov actually performed admirably in last season's series, but Dubnyk enters this matchup with a chance to be a real difference- maker for the Wild.
Dubnyk resurrected Minnesota's playoff hopes after coming over from Arizona in a trade on Jan. 14. He went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 GAA, .936 save percentage and five shutouts over 39 games to help the Wild nab their fourth straight playoff berth. The 28-year-old wasn't quiet as good in the opening round against the Blues, but ended his first career playoff series with a .913 save percentage and 2.32 GAA while recording one shutout.
Darcy Kuemper is the No. 2 option in net, but head coach Mike Yeo is hoping he won't need him.
The Wild offense, and the power play in particular, helped Dubnyk out tremendously in Round 1. Minnesota averaged 2.83 goals per game against the Blues while scoring on one-third (4-of-12) of its chances with the man advantage.
It should come as no surprise that Zach Parise led the scoring attack in the opening round, pacing the Wild with seven points on three goals and four assists. Parise also was the team's leading scorer in the regular season with 62 points and a team-best 33 goals.
Parise plays the left wing on the top line alongside centerman Mikael Granlund and right winger Jason Pominville. Granlund tied Parise for the team with four assists in the opening round and also scored once. Pominville, meanwhile, was second on the team with five points on two goals and three helpers.
In the first round, Nino Niederreiter was the club's most dangerous forward outside of the top-line guys. The Swiss winger brings both size and speed to the table and he was able to match Parise with three goals in the opening round.
The Wild would like to get more production from winger Thomas Vanek, who only had two assists in six games against the Blues. The Austrian veteran posted 21 goals in 2014-15, but has failed to score a goal in 10 consecutive games dating back to the regular season.
Marco Scandella had a productive first-round series from the back end, leading the defense with a pair of goals. He also added an assist and sported a club- leading rating of plus-five. Jared Spurgeon also contributed three points (1G, 2A) from a blue-line position.
Yeo's most reliable all-around defensive pairing is still the partnership of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin, who were the top two minute-eaters for the club despite combining for just one assist against the Blues.
Suter logged 26:05 of ice time per game in Round 1, which was down from 29:03 in the regular season. Brodin logged 22:30 of action per tilt against the Blues.
Jordan Leopold and promising young Mathew Dumba will likely serve as the third pairing.
Minnesota had a solid showing on the penalty kill in Round 1, killing off 9- of-11 St. Louis power plays. Parise also recorded a short-handed goal to give the Wild an early lead in the series-clinching Game 6 victory.
A year before losing in six games to the Blackhawks in the 2014 conference semis, the Wild lost 4-1 to Chicago in the opening round. With Dubnyk in the crease, Minnesota is hoping the third time is a charm when it comes to pulling off an upset over its Central Division rivals.
Dubnyk certainly gave Chicago fits in his two meetings against the Blackhawks since moving to Minnesota. The Blackhawks won the first three games against the Wild in 2014-15, but then only scored one goal against Dubnyk in losing the final two tilts of the season series.
Chicago was blanked by Dubnyk in a 3-0 road loss on Feb. 3 and only managed to get one of its 33 shots by the goaltender in a 2-1 setback on April 7 in the Windy City. Dubnyk recorded a .983 save percentage over those two outings.
Crawford put up solid numbers against the Wild this season, going 2-2-0 with a 2.02 GAA and .948 save percentage. In light of Crawford's struggles in the first round, we could see Darling at some point in this series, but the rookie netminder has never faced Minnesota.
The Wild are hoping Dubnyk is the guy who can get them over the hump against Chicago. However, Parise also needs to perform at a higher level in this series than he did in the previous two playoff meetings against the Blackhawks. He has five points (2G, 3A) in 11 postseason tilts against Chicago and had two assists in four regular-season meetings in 2014-15.
Mikko Koivu led Minnesota with four points on a goal and three assists in this season's series, while Jason Zucker and Granlund potted three and two goals, respectively.
Kane torched Minnesota for eight points (2G, 6A) in four games this season. He has nine points on three goals and six helpers over 11 career postseason outings against the Wild.
Toews added six points (1G, 5A) in five games against the Wild in 2014-15, while Bickell had four goals and an assist.
The tough series against the Predators knocked Chicago down a peg and Quenneville's club doesn't have that air of invincibility around it at the moment.
Still, betting against a team like the Blackhawks because of one down series doesn't seem like a smart move. This will be a much closer battle than the previous two playoff meetings between these clubs, but in the end, Chicago should have enough firepower to move past the Wild.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 7