Published January 13, 2015
The Chicago Blackhawks took some time to warm up in Round 1, but they certainly resembled the NHL's best team by the end of the series.
The Blackhawks had an NHL-best 36-7-5 record this season to win the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy since 1990-91. Against eighth-seeded Minnesota in the Western Conference quarterfinals, however, the Blackhawks needed overtime to win the opener and even lost Game 3 in OT before eventually closing out the series in five.
After a 3-0 win in Game 4 and a 5-1 decision in the series clincher, the Blackhawks wound up outscoring the Wild by a 17-7 margin in the series. All in all, it was an easy series for Chicago but it says something about how dominant the Blackhawks were during the regular season that it seemed like it should've been even easier.
Chicago wore down the Wild in Round 1 thanks to its superior depth at both ends on the ice. The deep roster includes plenty of familiar faces from the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship team of 2010. 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 can lean heavily on that postseason experience this spring.
Sharp and Hossa paced Chicago with six points apiece in the opening round. Sharp, who had 11 goals during the Blackhawks' title run in 2010, notched five goals and one assist against Minnesota, while Hossa had three goals and three helpers.
Bryan Bickell also chipped in with three goals and an assist and Kane failed to score a goal but led the club with five helpers.
Of Chicago's big-time players up front, Toews had the quietest series in the opening round, notching two assists over the five games. Chicago's captain has been a proven scorer in his playoff career, however, recording 17 goals and 35 assists in 57 postseason contests.
Toews, a superb two-way player, still led all Chicago forwards in average ice time in the first round, seeing 21 minutes, 9 seconds of action per night.
Every Chicago forward who played in all five games during the first round registered at least a point and nine of those players had at least two points.
Brandon Saad, one of the finalists for this year's Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, had just one assist in Round 1, but he was fourth among Chicago forwards with 18:17 of ice time per game. Saad played in two games for the Blackhawks in last year's postseason and averaged nearly six minutes less of ice time per game (12:21).
Chicago received tremendous production from its top defenseman in the opening round, as Duncan Keith had one goal and four assists to tie Kane for third on the team in scoring. Keith also logged a team-leading 23:21 of ice time per game in Round 1. That's a manageable number for Keith, who averaged 30:15 of ice time per game when Chicago lost in the opening round to Phoenix last spring.
The Blackhawks used the same six defensemen in all five games against the Wild and five of those blueliners averaged over 20 minutes of ice time per tilt. The only exception was Nick Leddy, who logged just under 19 minutes per game and was the only Chicago skater with a minus rating for the series.
Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson led Chicago's blue line with plus-five ratings and Johnny Oduya chipped in with a goal and an assist.
With all of its talented forwards and Keith running things from the back end, one would expect Chicago to be a formidable power-play team, but the Hawks have struggled with the man advantage all year long. The Blackhawks were ranked 19th on the PP during the regular season and only scored twice on 13 chances on the man advantage in Round 1.
On the other hand, Chicago is relentless on the penalty kill and was a perfect 17-for-17 against Minnesota's power play in the opening round. The Blackhawks were third in the NHL in penalty killing during the regular season and also had five shorthanded goals.
Goaltender Corey Crawford had a terrific start to this year's playoffs, posting 1.32 goals against average and .950 save percentage over five games. The 28-year-old is now 9-9 with a 2.11 GAA in 19 career playoff games.
Crawford started 28 games for Chicago in the regular season, while 19 starts went to Ray Emery, who was unavailable in the first round due to a lower-body injury. However, Emery, who posted an amazing 17-1-0 record this season, is ready to back up Crawford at the start of this series and he gives Quenneville a stellar Plan B in net should the No. 1 guy falter.
Emery is 20-15 with a 2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage in 36 career playoff games.
DETROIT RED WINGS (7th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 24-16-8
2013 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Anaheim 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
The Red Wings fought hard to make the playoffs for the 22nd straight season in 2013 and the seventh-seeded club proved it still belongs there with an upset of Anaheim in Round 1.
Although Detroit's seventh-place finish in the West is the club's worst seeding since it last missed the postseason in 1989-90, the Red Wings knocked off the second-seeded Ducks in seven games during this year's conference quarterfinals.
The Red Wings are in the conference semifinals for the sixth time in seven seasons after getting bounced out by Nashville in the opening round last spring.
Detroit used a balanced scoring attack and timely stops from goaltender Jimmy Howard to outlast the Ducks in seven games.
The Red Wings had six forwards post two or more goals in the battle against Anaheim. Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen led the way with three goals each, while Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Cleary, Damien Brunner and Justin Abdelkader notch two goals apiece.
Zetterberg led the Red Wings with eight total points in the opening round and Datsyuk finished with seventh. This is Zetterberg's first postseason run as captain after he inherited the "C" following Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement last summer.
While Zetterberg and Datsyuk are clearly Detroit's top two forwards, Abdelkader was impressive in Round 1 as well. He had two goals and an assist while leading the team with a plus-four rating despite missing two games due to a suspension for a high hit on Anaheim's Toni Lydman.
The loss of Lidstrom still looms large on the blue line for Detroit, but the club did finish fifth in team defense this season with just 2.29 goals per game.
Niklas Kronwall has picked up the big minutes in the absence of the aforementioned Lidstrom, who was a seven-time Norris Trophy winner. Kronwall, a native of Sweden like Lidstrom, averaged 25:20 of ice time per game in the opening round and registered one assist.
While Kronwall is no Lidstrom, he is the best all-around defenseman on a roster that also includes Jonathan Ericsson, Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl.
Smith provided Detroit's only goal from the back end in the first round, but he also had a minus-three rating for the series.
Howard had a busy series in net for Detroit in the conference quarters, as he faced an average of 32 shots per game against the Ducks. In the end, Howard posted a 2.74 GAA and .911 save percentage over the seven games and he proved his worth in close games, posting a 3-1 record in the four tests that went to overtime.
The 29-year-old Howard is 17-18 all-time in the playoffs with a 2.65 GAA and .914 save percentage.
Detroit's power-play was ranked 15th in the NHL during the regular season, but the Red Wings produced an impressive six goals on 25 chances with the man advantage in the opening round. However, they also surrendered seven goals on Anaheim's 25 power-play opportunities after finishing with the 12th-ranked penalty killing unit in the regular season.
Chicago won all four meetings in this year's season series and has claimed seven straight against the Red Wings overall.
Three of the four encounters between the clubs ended after regulation, while the other contest was a 7-1 rout in Detroit on March 31. That blowout loss represented a season-high in goals allowed for the Red Wings, who have dropped nine of their last 10 games against Chicago.
The Central Division and Original Six foes have met 15 times in the playoffs and Chicago has taken eight of those series. However, Detroit has taken the last two postseason encounters, including a five-game series win when the franchise's last met in the playoffs in the 2009 Western Conference finals.
Toews led the way for Chicago during the 2013 season series, posting two goals and three assists. Saad, Leddy and Dave Bolland also had two goals apiece, while Hossa, Kane and Sharp combined for just one goal and two assists.
Franzen and Cory Emmerton each had two goals for the Red Wings over the four games, while Howard was 0-1-3 with a 2.50 GAA. Crawford played in all four tilts against Detroit and posted a sparkling 1.19 GAA to go with his perfect 4-0 mark.
Outside of the blowout win by Chicago in late March these teams normally play tightly-contested games. In fact, 10 of the last 11 encounters between the clubs in the regular season have been decided by just one goal.
The last time these teams met in the playoffs Detroit was on its way to a second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Blackhawks are the clear favorite this time around.
Chicago boasts superior depth at both ends of the ice and should be able to dictate the pace against the Red Wings. Detroit will needs Howard to steal two or three games if it expects to make it to the next round and the Blackhawks have too much firepower to make that a likely scenario.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blackhawks in 6