In 2013, the Minnesota Wild were overwhelmed by the Blackhawks as they started their Stanley Cup run. In 2014, the Wild were game, but still outclassed in the end. In 2015? Well, it remains to be seen, as the rematch of the rematch begins Friday night at the United Center. But this Wild team is the best one yet — faster, deeper, more experienced, and with a goaltender who crammed an MVP-worthy season into three brilliant months.
“To say you can beat a team three years in the postseason all in a row, three straight times, that’d be pretty tough,” Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. “We’re definitely up for a good challenge. They’ve gotten better pretty much every year, the past few years. It’s going to be a tough test for us.”
Maybe the toughest one the Western Conference has to offer. Here are five X-factors that could determine the outcome of what’s sure to be a tight series.
Noteworthy: Before he was Devan Dubnyk, franchise savior, he was Devan Dubnyk, unimpressive journeyman. Dubnyk willed the Wild into the playoffs with his remarkable 27-9-2 run after being traded from Arizona. But before that, he was a backup in Edmonton, a minor-leaguer for Nashville, and a backup for Arizona.
We’ve seen red-hot out-of-nowhere goalies peter out in the playoffs before — just look at Ottawa’s Andrew Hammond last week. Dubnyk appeared destined to be the next one when he gave up six goals on 17 shots in a Game 4 loss to St. Louis last Wednesday. But he bounced back in a huge way by stopping 66 of 68 shots over the next two games to close out the series. Dubnyk turns 29 next week, so he’s not some doe-eyed rookie. Has he truly turned a corner this late in his career, or is his remarkable run all a fluke?
Quoteworthy: “There were reasons why we could believe that he would bounce back from [Game 4], but you never fully know until you’re faced with that,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Especially because there are more emotions in the playoffs, you’re dealing with a lot more. But the way he got through that was extremely impressive.”
Noteworthy: The Hawks would never say if they would have rather faced the Blues or the Wild, but it’s a safe bet Bryan Bickell was rooting for Minnesota. In 23 games against the Wild over the past three seasons — including the playoffs — Bickell has 15 goals and five assists, and a plus-11 rating. In the last two playoff series against Minnesota, he has seven goals in 11 games.
And while the Hawks are led by bigger names such as Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, as Bickell goes, so go the Hawks. The numbers are staggering. In the playoffs, the Hawks are 25-4 when Bickell picks up at least a point, and 14-20 when he doesn’t. In 39 playoff wins, Bickell has 18 goals and 14 assists, with a plus-33 rating. In 24 playoff losses, he has two goals and two assists, with a minus-13 rating.
Quoteworthy: “I have to look at the video to see how I scored those goals, to see what I need to do to be successful against this team,” Bickell said. “It’s a new season, a new series. Things change. Different players step up.”
Noteworthy: Twenty minutes into the playoffs, the Hawks found themselves down 3-0 to the Nashville Predators. Barely 11 minutes into the potential clincher in Game 6, the Hawks found themselves down 3-1. The fact that the Hawks won both of those games isn’t the point. The fact that they won a series in six games despite giving up the first goal four times isn’t, either. The fact is, if the Hawks continue to have such slow starts against the Wild, they won’t win the series. Minnesota is more effective at locking down on an opponent once it has a lead, and it’s unlikely the Hawks will be so lucky as to have Dubnyk falter the way Nashville’s Pekka Rinne did.
Quoteworthy: “Our starts weren’t that great, but we still found ways to win,” Kane said. “It’d be nice if we could put ourselves in a better position, to have good starts, and make it easier on ourselves throughout the game.”
Noteworthy: The Hawks won the 2013 Stanley Cup with a lousy power play, but only because their penalty kill was so good. Right now, the Hawks have neither. Against Nashville, the Hawks were a measly 3-of-19 on the power play, while going a ghastly 16-of-22 on the penalty kill. That penalty kill, which spent the first half of the season flirting with a record rate of better than 90 percent, fell all the way to 10th in the league at 83.4 percent. Meanwhile, the Wild had the top PK unit in the league at 86.3 percent. And their power play — one of the worst in the league all season — led the league in the first round at 4-of-12. Chances are, the Hawks’ middling power play won’t light up the stingy Wild. So they’d better at least keep Minnesota’s power play off the board in what’s likely to be a low-scoring series.
Quoteworthy: “Our penalty killing has got to be better,” Joel Quenneville said. “Some of the goals [against Nashville], technically, positionally … in the past, we don’t give up those type of goals. It’s something that we’ve got to rectify from our last series.”
Noteworthy: The Hawks’ top six scorers against Nashville? Toews, Duncan Keith, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Brent Seabrook. Big names coming up big on the big stage. It was that core group that took control in Game 6, and it’s that core group that must continue to shoulder most of the offensive load. Every team has a couple of guys it can lean on for a big goal in a big situation. The Hawks have several. Minnesota has better scoring depth than ever with the likes of Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Tomas Vanek, Jason Zucker and Jason Pominville. But perhaps no team in the league has the star power — the experienced star power, no less — that the Hawks do. It’s been the difference before. It could be the difference again.
Quoteworthy: “We kind of realize now that we’re fortunate and lucky enough to be in these situations where you’re playing in playoffs every season, where you have the opportunity to do something special as a team,” Kane said. “So I think all of our players that have been around kind of realize that and try to use our experience to our advantage to step up in these big moments, especially when the playoffs start. When we’ve been successful, that’s the way it’s been for us pretty much every time. Our top guys have been our top guys, and then we get those contributions from the depth guys on our team and that’s what makes us so successful.”
PREDICTION: Expect a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games, along with another healthy dose of overtimes. In the end, experience and home-ice advantage win out. But, oh, just barely. HAWKS IN SEVEN.