Finally, a hockey game.
Six days after they ousted the Nashville Predators in the first-round of the playoffs, the Blackhawks will open their second-round series against the Minnesota Wild at 8:30 p.m. Friday night at the United Center.
“Considering the time off for both teams, we know the start of the series is going to be huge,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said.
As usual, the challenge for the Hawks will be raising the level of their game to meet the greater challenge. The Predators were a slumping team coming into the playoffs that played most of the series without their best player, all-star defenseman Shea Weber. The Wild were the best team in hockey over the final three months of the season and overcame home-ice disadvantage to beat the Blues in six games in the first round.
That many considered this a toss-up series, despite the Hawks’ playoff experience and accomplishments and home-ice advantage, is an indication that this is a series that will demand the Hawks’ attention from the start.
“If anything, they’re going to be much more different than any [Wild] team we’ve faced before,” Toews said. “We knew we had a much tougher time with them in the second round [last year] than the year before.
“They’ve grown and matured. They not only have experience, but I think they’re hungrier than ever and probably feel destined to make a great run in the playoffs.”
The Hawks beat the Wild in five games in the first round in 2013 and in six games last year. The degree-of-difficulty is obvious.
“It’s what we’re up against — a team that’s on a roll,” Toews said. “They came into the playoffs playing great. They’ve got a lot of confidence coming off beating the top team in our division [the Blues]. A lot of it’s about our preparation, doing what we do and using our experience we’ve had in the playoffs —but knowing that this is the [Wild] team we’ve seen the previous years.”
But as often is the case for the Hawks, recognizing a threat and responding to it are two completely different things. The Hawks’ energy level ebbs and flows as much as any contender. When they are as lethargic as they were in the first 10 minutes against the Wild in Game 6 last week, their defense gets exposed. When they play with the energy they did in the final 10 minutes of that first period —after falling behind 2-0 — they are as close to unbeatable as any team in hockey.
It’s too much to expect any team to play at that fever-pitch level all the time. But waiting for desperate moments are a recipe for disaster in this series. The Hawks know it. The question is: Can they do anything about it?
“It’s part of the mindset you need to get yourself into,” Toews said. “You’ve got to find a way to find that same level of determination to keep playing the same way — whether you’re up a couple of goals or down a couple of goals.
“It’s the same situation where the motivation isn’t right there in front of you. You’ve got to find a way to bring it out of you and have great starts, because we know the importance of that — especially against a team like Minnesota.”
Other observations on the eve of the Hawks-Wild series:
2. The opener will be a classic “rest vs. rust” game. The Hawks have not played since last Saturday night. The Wild have not played since Sunday night.
The last time the Hawks had this much time between series, they beat the Red Wings 4-1 at the United Center in the conference semifinals in 2013 — six days after ousting the Wild in the first round.
“It’s what it is,” Quenneville said. “Our guys don’t like practicing. They’d rather play games. A couple of days off in the mix there. Certainly I thought the pace picked up today in practice. Had a couple of decent practices coming into today. The excitement is getting down and playing for keeps and getting this series started.
3. The Wild have the advantage of momentum after a strong second half of the season; and revenge after losing to the Hawks in the playoffs the past two seasons. But they still have one hill to climb to win this series: winning at the United Center.
Though they beat the Hawks 2-1 at the United Center in the regular season, the Wild are 0-6 at the UC in the playoffs the past two seasons — a fact that was duly noted by Wild coach Mike Yeo in his post-morning-skate press conference Friday afternoon.
And if the Blackhawks play true-to-form in this series, the Wild might have to win twice in Chicago. The Hawks have won at least one road game in their last 14 playoff series and 16 of 17 under Quenneville.
4. With the demise of the Red Wings in the first round, the Hawks are the only team left in the playoffs that has won a Stanley Cup in the last seven years. The Anaheim Ducks, who won the Cup in 2007, are the only other salary-cap era champion left in these playoffs.
5. Brad Richards had an up-and-down regular season with the Hawks, but he played a key role in the first-round series against the Predators and the former Conn Smythe winner’s postseason experience could become a bigger factor as the playoffs ensue. Richards had one goal, three points and was a plus-3 vs. the Predators. He’s skating pretty well right now.
“Yeah, he is,” Quenneville said. “I think that rest at the end of the season [Richards missed the final three games for maintenance], getting him going into the playoffs, it looked like he got better and picked up more pace to his game. I felt that he had a couple of real good stretches in the regular season, be it with that line or his own game. But right now is probably the best he’s moved or skated all year.”
6. Devan Dubnyk is the second consecutive Vezina Trophy finalist the Hawks will face after beating the Predators and Pekka Rinne in the first round. Prior to this season, the Hawks had faced only one goaltender who finished in the top three in the Vezina voting — the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo (third) in 2011.
7. Speaking of the Vezina Trophy, the Hawks have not had a Vezina winner since Eddie Belfour in 1992-93. In fact, since 1994-95, the Hawks have only had two goalies receive Vezina votes — backup Ray Emery was seventh and starter Corey Crawford was eighth in 2012-13 when the Hawks started 21-0-3 and led the NHL with 77 points. Only the Penguins (72) were within 11 points of the Hawks that season.
8. The Hawks have won Game 1 in seven of their last eight playoff series — the only loss was at St. Louis in the first round last year (4-3 in triple-overtime, when the Blues tied the game with 1:45 left in regulation).
The Hawks have won seven straight series openers at the United Center. They lost Game 1 at home against the Predators and Canucks in the first two rounds before recovering to win those series.
9. Special teams will be especially critical in a series that figures to be tight from start to finish. In the previous two playoff series against the Wild, the Hawks were 4-0 when they scored a power-play goal and 0-2 when they allowed a power-play goal. Overall, they were 5-for-16 on the power play and 32-of-34 on the penalty kill.
10. Second-round picks to click:
Canadiens over Lightning in 7; Capitals over Rangers in 6; Wild over Blackhawks in 6; Ducks over Flames in 6.