Well here we are, Wild fans! After a season of soaring highs, crushing lows, and a rich, creamy middle it’s finally time for the second season to start and for the first time since ‘08 your Minnesota Wild are taking part!
Interestingly, they’ve drawn the President’s-Trophy-Winning Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. Obviously, the Wild are huge underdogs in this matchup, with most pundits giving the Wild little hope of winning more than one game. While I’m inclined to agree with them, let’s break this thing down and have a look at the task at hand.
(Quick aside: Once the jubilation of getting to the playoffs wore off, how pissed off do you think Red Wings fans were that the Wild tumbled all the way to the the #8 seed? If the Wild could have just tread water and hung on to #7 the Wings would have drawn the Hawks, leading to one last blood-and-guts, winner-take-all series before realignment drives them apart for the foreseeable future. Instead they got the Ducks and the 10:00 EST start times that come with it. Good thing nobody in Detroit has a job to be at in the morning.)
Blackhawks: Arguably the scariest group of forwards in the West. Patrick Kane has had the Wild’s number for quite a while (thank god there aren’t any shootouts in the playoffs). Marian Hossa has feasted on the Wild as well. Jonathan Toews didn’t get the nickname “Captain Serious” for nothing. And Patrick Sharp could be the sneaky key to the series for the Hawks.
While that group is legitimately scary, there’s comfort in the known. Obviously, if the Wild are going to have any success in this series they’ll have to control the damage this group inflicts. There is no safer bet in hockey right now than Ryan Suter & Jonas Brodin facing the Hossa/Kane line every time they step on the ice. To put it bluntly, these four forwards are going to “get theirs.” The key to the Wild’s success (assuming the Wild’s big guns “get theirs” as well) is how the Wild handle the bottom six in Chicago.
Dave Bolland has been ruled out in Game 1.
(Quick Bolland Aside: Over the years that the Wild failed to make the playoffs I became a huge Dave Bolland fan because everybody in Vancouver hates the guy. Two years ago the Hawks went down 3-0 in a first round series against the Canucks. Bolland returned for Game 4 in Chicago and the Hawks proceeded to take the next three and push Game 7 into OT. Bottom line: Every game the Wild avoids Dave Bolland the better.)
However, the Wild will still have to find answers for the likes of Viktor Stalberg, Michael Handzus, Andrew Shaw, psuedo-tough guy Daniel Carcillo and Calder hopeful Brandon Saad. Off the top of your head you’re probably thinking, “Well, it shouldn’t be too tough to find an answer for that group.” Theoretically, no, it’s not. However, when the available options are Justin Falk, Brett Clark, Nate Prosser, & the Konopka line you can see why it’s a troubling proposition.
After the season the Wild put together it’s difficult to see how this squad is going to score enough goals to keep up. I mentioned it above, but working under the assumption that the Big Four from Chicago are going to score, it’s imperative that Mikko Koivu & Zach Parise are able to get on the board. Scoring depth doesn’t mean much when the big guys aren’t putting the puck in the net.
The consensus among pundits is that the Wild’s success (at least offensively) is going to hinge on the performance of the second line and that seems reasonable. Lord only knows how healthy Matt Cullen is at this point but, as has been mentioned plenty over the last couple of weeks, he’s going to play the biggest role of the Wild’s forwards. Not only is Devin Setoguchi a lost puppy without Cullen, but the fact that the Hawks top checking line (the Handzus line) will be dealing with the Koivu line means that Cullen’s line will likely be matched up against the Hawks second line (Toews/Sharp). Not only will Cullen, Setoguchi, & Zucker/Bouchard/Pominville be counted on to score, but they’ll have to be better-than-responsible defensively. Tall order.
Kyle Brodziak has had a season to forget, but if his line with Clutterbuck & Pominville/Dowell/Mitchell/Rupp can slow down the Kane line he’ll have earned his keep.
(Grinder sidenote: I’ve harped on it all season and I’m sorry to do it again, but I’m going to stump once more for the addition of Stephane Veilleux to this roster. He’s fast, he hits, he yaps, he knows his role & limits… I just think he’d be a real asset in getting Hossa/Kane off their games. OK, rant done.)
The Wild have trouble scoring against everybody. The fact that they’ve lost Pominville for at least Game 1 will only add to their struggles. Throw in the amount of time they’re going to spend chasing around the Hawks forwards and it will be imperative that the Wild’s forwards capitalize on their chances.
Much like Suter/Brodin facing the Kane line everytime they’re on the ice, it’s a sure bet that Joel Quenneville will have Duncan Keith & Brent Seabrook on the ice every time the Koivu line is out. If that line is going to have any success against those two rocks of defensemen they’re going to have to keep grinding away. Honestly, I think the Koivu line’s best hope is to just work hard and try to draw penalties to get the Wild’s PP on the ice. If Keith & Seabrook play smart hockey they should be able to contain the Wild’s big line, thus blowing up the Wild’s game plan of matching goals with the Hawks Big Four forwards.
The drop in quality from Keith/Seabrook is notciceable, but not especially dramatic. Nick Leddy & Niklas Hjalmarsson will likely be tasked with stopping the Cullen line. I might be crazy, but I’d call that a toss-up if Cullen’s good to go. If that line can get a goal or two against the Ni(c)k(s), and if the Wild’s bottom six can at least make those guys pay every time they go back to retrieve a puck, the Wild could take advantage.
Ryan Suter should win the Norris Trophy and Jonas Brodin should win the Calder. That being said, all the hardware in the world isn’t going to mean much if they can’t figure out a way to put the screws to Patty Kane & Marian Hossa. Are they up to the task? Hopefully. The way I see this series playing out, they don’t necessarily have to blank that line, but, they will have to hold those forwards to the same level of production that the Wild get from Parise/Koivu/Coyle. If the Koivu line ain’t scoring, then it’s imperative that Suter & Brodin keep the Kane line off the board. Easier said than done.
In a surprising move, the Wild called up Marco Scandella and plan to play him in the second pairing with Jared Spurgeon. Somehow, I doubt Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp lost much sleep over this.
(Quick Scandella Note: Let me preface everything I’m about to write by saying that I’m a big fan of Superstorm Scandy. Few people are bigger advocates of the “Defensemen Take Time To Develop” stance than me. That being said, calling him up speaks volumes about just how far the Wild are from being true contenders.
The Wild’s defensive group has been a work in progress all season. Everything past Suter & Brodin has been a crapshoot (and frankly, Yeo & Fletch got lucky that Brodin developed so quickly). For the first half of the season we were treated to Nate Prosser & Justin Falk playing healthy scratch chairs. At the time the Wild were carrying 7 d-men. Then they went and added Brett Clark so they could have a “veteran in the mix” despite the fact Clark had played half the season in the minors because he couldn’t get an NHL deal from anybody (and there are teams much worse off than the Wild on the blue line). Tom Gilbert’s play fell off, Clayton Stoner’s play fell off, Brett Clark is what we thought he was, and suddenly Fletch is calling up a NINTH defensemen!
All this is to say nothing of the fact that they’re taking Scandella (a d-man who’s flamed out three times in the NHL) and placing him on the second pairing with Spurgeon (because they had chemistry over 18 months ago), in a high-leverage situation against one of the deepest forward groups in the league and the whole thing screams “panic move.” Genuine contenders do not go into the first round of the playoffs with no clue who their Top 4 defensemen are.)
Alright, sorry for ranting. Now, let’s say that Spurgeon and Scandella spend a day or two singing Taking Back Sunday songs together and redevelop that chemistry. Suddenly, you’ve got too mobile de-men whose biggest strength is getting the puck out of their own end quickly. Trying to out-skill the Toews/Sharp line may be fool’s errand, but the other options aren’t much better.
Speaking of which, Clayton Stoner and Gilbert/Falk/Prosser will make up the third pairing. If these guys contribute any offense: great. If they give up any goals: fail. All I’d like to see out of this group is “off the glass, off the glass, off the glass.”
Corey Crawford & Ray Emery were 1A & 1B all season. Some people would call that a good problem to have, but ask the Canucks what happens if you let that situation linger too long.
It’s no secret that goaltending has been the Achilles Heel of the Hawks for years. While both Crawford & Emery were great this year, I can’t believe any Blackhawks fan wouldn’t list those two as their number one concern heading into the postseason.
It’s actually kind of unfortunate for the Wild that the Hawks enter the series with Emery sidelined. That means Quenneville has no choice but to ride Crawford. Theoretically, if the Wild were to get a softy or two and steal Game 1, the Hawks would be faced with a goalie dilemma that could sidetrack the whole series. As it stands, it’s sink or swim with Crawford.
I’ve made so many jokes over the years about Niklas Backstrom’s unwavering consistency (and reliance on angles & situations rather than reaction) that I nicknamed him “The Scientist.”
So here the Wild are, back in the playoffs, and suddenly Niklas Backstrom is one of the biggest question marks. It’s no secret that Backstrom’s game has run hot & cold for about a month now. It’s gotten so bad that, even game to game, it’s nearly impossible to tell which Backstrom is going to show up.
That said, I think it’s redemption time for The Scientist. I genuinely believe that the fatigue of playing so many games this season left him running on fumes by the end of the season. The playoffs provide their own adrenaline and I think he’s going to be up to the challenge. If the Wild are going to have any chance of winning this series The Scientist is going to have to steal a game, likely in Chicago. I feel confident.
It may sound crazy, but I think this matchup is what’s going to be the Wild’s undoing. To explain why, let’s take a trip in the Way-Back Machine. All the way back to 2003.
The Wild overachieve and make the playoffs for the first time in history. As you may remember, they draw a Colorado Avalanche team that features somewhere between 4-6 Hall Of Famers (depending on how you feel about Milan Hejduk & Adam Foote). On paper, that Avalanche squad should have thrashed the Wild.
So how did the Wild pull off the upset? Jacques Lemaire.
Not only did Lemaire get his whole squad of overachievers on the same page heading into the playoffs, he made little tactical moves all series to keep the Avs off balance. He was a notorious line-juggler who’s system hinged on all his pieces interchangeable.
However, not only is Lemaire a genius, but Tony Granato was behind the bench for the Avs. If memory serves, Granato spent most of that series either in a fetal position or yelling at Sakic to “fix it!”
What does that have to do with this series? Well, that should be obvious. Behind the Blackahawks bench is Joel Quenneville, a coach with a Stanley Cup ring, a coach who’s succeeded despite crushing expectations in a large market, a coach with big, complicated, frequently intoxicated personalities, and, perhaps most importantly, a coach with an impeccable mustache.
Behind the Wild’s bench: A coach who nearly pissed away a playoff spot by being goaded into fighting the Oilers, is betting on a ninth defenseman to be the answer, and doesn’t have eyebrows.
Massive Edge: Blackhawks
So that’s the tale of the tape. Could the Wild in this series? Sure. But it’ll take a huge effort from Suter & Brodin, a flawless performance from The Scientist, the reemergence of Devin Setoguchi, and, evidently, Superstorm Scandy.
To be totally honest, the Blackhawks & Wild could play this series 20 times and the Hawks would win 19 of them. To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas, I’m saying there’s a chance.
Two quick notes before I go:
First, Yeo and the players have said all the right things about how just getting to the playoffs “wasn’t the goal” and that there’s still “plenty of work left to be done.”
I suppose that’s true, but like I said at the beginning of the year, you don’t give guys 10 year contracts or pepper your lineup with rookies in an effort to win the Cup the first year. In the big picture, making the playoffs this year is going to go down as an important, experience-gaining step. Fletcher would never admit it, but win or lose, this has been a successful season.
Secondly, as fan, I’m thrilled just to have the Wild back in the playoffs. For the first time in years I don’t have to be a fan/whore and cheer for whoever’s playing the Canucks. I’ve thought of almost nothing else for the last two days. God, it feels good to have a horse in the race.
Obviously I’ll be on Twitter for the series (@WildlyBiased). Give me a follow, tweet at me, whatever…