Toews, Blackhawks ready for formidable challenge vs. Devan Dubnyk-led Wild

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Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad is stymied by Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk in the Hawks’ 2-1 loss to the Wild on April 7, at the United Center. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

When Blackhawks center Antoine Vermette played with Devan Dubnyk on the Arizona Coyotes in the first half of the season, he couldn’t help but notice that as poorly as the Coyotes were playing, they were a different team with Dubnyk in goal.

“He had a great effect on the team there,” Vermette said. “Even though our record wasn’t showing that much [overall] … but every time he stepped in I think he was really effective. His record was like 9-3-1 or around that. Every time he stepped in, he gave us a chance to win.”

Therein lies the challenge for the Hawks against the Minnesota Wild in the second round of the playoffs — they have to overcome not only Devan Dubnyk, but the Devan Dubnyk Effect. For whatever reason, his team plays better when he’s in goal.

The Coyotes were 9-5-2 with the 28-year-old Dubnyk in goal and 7-17-2 with starter Mike Smith. The Wild were struggling at 18-19-5 with Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and John Curry in goal when they acquired the journeyman Dubnyk on Jan. 14 — Minnesota was his fifth organization in the previous 368 days — and went on the hot roll of a lifetime. The Wild went 27-9-2 with Dubnyk starting 38 consecutive games to go from seventh and last place in the Central Division to fourth place and the No. 1 wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

So if you’re scoring at home, the Coyotes and Wild were a combined 36-14-4 (.704 points percentage) with Dubnyk and 36-64-12 (.364) without him.

“He’s a big goaltender (6-6, 210) like the one we just faced [the Predators’ 6-5, 206-pound Pekka Rinne],” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “He’s got a team that plays well around him. They block a lot of shots, get in lanes and don’t give up a whole lot of scoring chances from the middle of the ice.

“When you know you’re going up against a goaltender who’s playing like that, who covers a lot of net, you’ve got to do what you can to get in front of him. It’s something we’ll focus on. It’s nothing new going up against a goaltender who’s been playing well.”

It’s a challenge for the Hawks, who were 3-0 against the Wild without Dubnyk, but 0-2 with one goal in two games against the Wild with Dubnyk in goal in the regular season. In fact, Dubnyk nearly shut out the Hawks in both games. He beat them 3-0 in St. Paul on Feb. 3. And he allowed only a Bryan Bickell goal with 1:48 left in a 2-1 loss at the United Center on April 7. Dubnyk stopped 56-of-57 shots in the two games.

But as Hawks coach Joel Quenneville noted, Dubnyk was tough on the entire league — a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist.

“As a team they check extremely well,” Quenneville said when asked about the challenge of beating Dubnyk. “Quality scoring chances are hard to come by — I’m sure St. Louis felt that as it progressed [in their first-round series]. Not a lot of time. Not a lot of space. You’ve got to get ugly goals. You’ve got to get to the net. Second opportunities.

“If he sees the puck he’s going to make it tough on you. That’s the one thing we’ve got to do. We know when you play him, you don’t expect to score a lot of goals. You want to make sure you don’t give up much.”

On the other hand, the Hawks have a knack for finding a way. It’s not like they’ve faced one Vezina winner after another in their seven-year run as Cup contenders. But they’ve almost risen to the level of the most formidable of challenges. Only against the Coyotes and Mike Smith in 2012, has a Hawks playoff loss been pinned on a hot goaltender (“He stood on his head to win that one,” Bickell said.)

They’ve met every other challenge. In the 2013 Western Conference final, the Kings’ Jonathan Quick came in red hot — a 1.50 goals-against average and .948 save percentage in winning the first two rounds. By the second period of Game 2 against the Hawks he was on the bench, pulled after allowing four goals on 17 shots. In all, Quick allowed 14 goals in five games in the series — which the Hawks won 4 games to 1 — with a pedestrian .897 save percentage.

The Bruins’ Tuukka Rask was even hotter coming into the Stanley Cup Final that year. He had allowed just two goals in a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins — the highest-scoring team in the NHL that season. Against the Hawks, Rask allowed 16 goals in six games — including three or more in each of the Hawks’ four victories en route to their second Cup in four seasons.

It’ll be yet another test of the Hawks’ offensive balance, fortitude and mental toughness. It will probably take all three to pull off this one, against an improved and resolute Wild team determined to finally overtake the Hawks. Toews is ready for that challenge.

“You’re going to have moments where their goaltender or their team feels like they’re shutting you down defensively. But you’ve got to persist,” Toews said. “At some point, it’s playoff hockey, something’s going to give and we have the ability to score big goals and to make plays in tough situations.

“We rely on that confidence that we can do that, especially when our back’s against the wall to a certain degree. We’ve done it against good goaltenders before, so there’s no reason we can’t do it again. At the end of the day, it’s in our control and up to us to make something happen.”

Vermette is intimately aware of the Devan Dubnyk Effect. But even though he has been with the Hawks for only nine weeks, he’s knows his current team has an “effect” of its own.

“There’s a lot of belief in this room,” Vermette said. “We respect our opponent. They’re a really good team. Obviously the goaltender has been great. But we have great players, too. If we play hard, play the right way, we’ll get chances there and hopefully we can capitalize on them.”

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