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Bryan Bickell tries to fight past Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter on April 7 at the United Center. (Getty Images)

Bryan Bickell on defensive-minded Wild ‘We need to break them’

SHARE Bryan Bickell on defensive-minded Wild ‘We need to break them’
SHARE Bryan Bickell on defensive-minded Wild ‘We need to break them’

Devan Dubnyk, the unlikely catalyst for the Minnesota Wild’s stunning late-season rise from last-place disappointment to legitimate contender, dominated the discussion after Blackhawks practice on Monday, their first since learning who their second-round opponent would be.

But Dubnyk isn’t so much the issue. Getting anywhere near him is.

“Just position-wise, they keep everything to the outside,” noted Wild-killer Bryan Bickell said. “They’ve got a great box and they don’t give us a lot of ‘A’ chances. We need to get traffic and bodies going through there to create offense. They’ve been like that for the last handful of years. It’s their system, the players they brought in believe in it, and it’s gotten them to where they are now. And we need to break them.”

Easier said than done. Even two years ago, when the Wild were overwhelmed in five games by the Stanley Cup-bound Hawks, they did a decent job of defending the slot area, blocking shooting lanes and clogging up the neutral zone. Last year, a little older and a lot faster, they pushed the Hawks to six games, holding the Hawks to two goals or fewer over the final four games.

And the team the Hawks will face starting Friday night at the United Center has only gotten better.

So despite their recent history, Jonathan Toews doesn’t see this as little brother chasing big brother. He sees the teams as virtual equals. Minnesota’s 28-9-3 record since acquiring Dubnyk in mid-January (and six-game series win over top-seeded St. Louis) certainly bolsters that theory. The Wild won the last two meetings (both post-Dubnyk) 3-0 and 2-1.

“I’d say they’re coming in hot,” Toews said. “They’re playing great hockey. They just beat a really, really good team. So in some way, I think maybe it’s the other way around. Obviously, [people] want to say that we’ve beat them the last two years, but I don’t think there’s any favorite in this series.”

Minnesota actually scored two more goals this season than the offensively gifted Hawks did. But it’s still that defensive-minded, muddling style of play that makes the Wild so tough to play against. The Nashville Predators tried to keep Hawks shooters in check in the first round, surrounding puck-carriers with as many as four bodies as they crossed the blue line. The Hawks leaned on drop passes as a means of breaking through the pressure.

The Wild present a similar problem.

“It’s an aggressive mindset on how we play the game,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “We’ve got some speed, we’ve got some guys that really compete hard. But as a group, as a unit of five, we like to think we get on teams quickly and pressure them hard, and we like to think we do that with a good structure.”

A tenacious forecheck could go a long way. As Bickell pointed out, the Wild’s top four defensemen play heavy minutes, particularly Ryan Suter, and wearing them down with physical play could pay off later in the series.

The difference with Minnesota now compared with, say, two years ago, is the speed and scoring ability they have up front to complement that strong team defense. Zach Parise scored 33 goals, and Thomas Vanek, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker and Jason Pominville are all dangerous scorers.

“They know how to shut things down and play that defensive game,” Hawks goalie Corey Crawford said. “And then when it almost seems like they’re just going to do that, then they turn it on and they start, not cheating, but attacking a little bit more. I feel like they kind of switch it up a little bit.”

So once again, you can expect to hear the familiar talk from the Hawks’ room of “greasy goals” and hard work in the slot and crease areas. It’s not their preferred style of play— when the Predators opened things up and used their speed game, the Hawks were at their best. But it’s the only way to get to Dubnyk. And you can’t beat Dubnyk if you can’t get near him.

“I think a little grit in front of the net is going to be [important],” said Bickell, who has 15 goals in 23 games against the Wild since the 2013 season and playoffs. “There’ll be a lot of cross-checks and bruises and things like that, but the will to get there is what we need.”

SERIES SCHEDULE

Friday, May 1 at Chicago, 8:30 p.m. NBCSN

Sunday, May 3 at Chicago, 7:30 p.m. NBCSN

Tuesday, May 5 at Minnesota, 7 p.m. NBCSN

Thursday, May 7 at Minnesota, 8:30 p.m. NBCSN

*Saturday, May 9 at Chicago, TBD

*Monday, May 11, at Minnesota, TBD

*Wednesday, May 13, at Chicago, TBD

* If necessary

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