CHICAGO — Five games in 2013, a small speed bump in Chicago’s run to the Stanley Cup title. Six games in 2014, a more difficult challenge for the Blackhawks.
Now the Minnesota Wild are in the second round for the second straight post-season, and standing in the way is their usual playoff roadblock. And even they are interested to see how they respond, beginning with Game 1 on Friday night in Chicago.
“We think we’re in a better place, but we won’t know until after,” coach Mike Yeo said. “All we have is an opportunity to keep pushing and prove that we are better and that we’re up to the task of knocking off a great hockey team.”
Minnesota was in a bad spot during a six-game slide in January that dropped the Wild to 18-19-5. But a trade for goaltender Devan Dubnyk fueled a resurgence that continued with a six-game victory over St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs.
With a deep group of forwards and Dubnyk on the best run of his career, the Wild are looking forward to measuring their progress against one of the league’s traditional powers.
“They’ve been the team to beat, them and L.A., in the Western Conference, they’ve been the teams to beat the last couple of years,” winger Zach Parise said. “When you get a chance, yeah, you see where you’re at. If you want to get out of the West, you have to beat them.”
Chicago is going for its third Stanley Cup championship since 2010. It made it all the way to the conference finals a year ago, but its title defence ended with an epic seven-game loss to the eventual champion Kings.
Fast forward to this season, and the Blackhawks stumbled into the playoffs on a four-game losing streak. But they got Patrick Kane back from a broken collarbone in time for the series opener against Nashville, and their best players rose to the occasion once again in a six-game victory over the Predators.
Jonathan Toews is tied for the NHL lead with eight points in the playoffs, and defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook each made a couple of big plays in the first round. Mix in more brilliance from Marian Hossa and Kane’s offensive presence, and the Blackhawks had enough to overcome a small goaltender controversy that concluded with starter Corey Crawford back in the net.
“In the Nashville series, I think we snuck out some games there, but for the most part we improved in a lot of areas and I think that’s good news for us, but we’re excited for the challenge,” Toews said.
Here are a few more things to watch when the Wild and Blackhawks meet:
THOSE SPECIAL, SPECIAL TEAMS: Minnesota leads the NHL in power-play percentage through the first round of the post-season, converting four of its 12 tries against St. Louis. Chicago allowed a league-worst six power-play goals against Nashville. Special teams, always a crucial part of the playoffs, could take on added importance in this series between familiar foes.
STOPPING BRYAN BICKELL: For all the talk about Toews, Kane and the rest of Chicago’s biggest stars, Bryan Bickell has really hurt the Wild over the years. The rugged winger had four goals and two assists in last year’s playoff series against Minnesota, and then collected four goals and an assist in five games versus the Wild this season.
When Bickell is playing well, he gives Chicago a physical presence in front of the net. If Dubnyk has any difficulty with rebound control, Bickell could present a problem for Minnesota.
“With Dubnyk in the net, he’s a six-foot-five-plus goalie who can see over — you name it,” Bickell said. “We need to get traffic and hopefully we get opportunities that way.”
HOME SWEET HOME: The Blackhawks are 22-4 in their last 26 home playoff games, outscoring their opponents 88-54 in that stretch. The Wild are winless in six post-season games at Chicago, managing just eight goals in those losses.
Minnesota, which won at St. Louis in Game 2 of the first round, will need at least one road win to move on. The good news for the Wild is they were successful on their last trip to the Windy City, with Dubnyk making 32 saves in a 2-1 victory on April 7.
“It’s not a secret, we haven’t had any success there in the playoffs the last couple of years,” Parise said. “It is a hard building. But like we’ve said the last little while and the last round, we’ve been playing well on the road. That’s a good sign for us.”
MISSING VANEK: Thomas Vanek helped Montreal make it to the Eastern Conference finals a year ago, finishing with five goals and five assists in 17 playoff games. The winger then signed a $19.5 million, three-year deal with Minnesota, but managed just two assists in the first round against the Blues. Getting the veteran scorer on track against the Blackhawks would provide a big lift for the Wild.