Game Time: 8:30PM Central
TV/Radio: NBCSN, SportsNet (Anglo), TVA3 (Franco), WGN-AM 720
Mall of America: Hockey Wilderness
And so it was fated to be, for the third year in a row, and the second in the West semifinals, that the Hawks and Wild would meet. And for the first time out of those three, there is a feeling across the hockey community that the Wild will be more than just a foil or a speedbump for the Hawks.
The cause of that change in attitude is as a result of the Wild’s goaltending being straightened out with a clear number 1 in Devan Dubnyk, who is a finalist for both the Vezina and Masterton awards this season. Dubnyk saved the Wild’s rapidly spiraling regular season with a .936 save percentage in 39 starts after getting traded to the Wild from Arizona. And while some may speculate that he has come back to earth a little bit after sporting a far more human .913 save percentage against the St. Louis Blues in the first round, he was still the primary reason the Wild won, as they were drastically outshot and out possessed by St. Louis. Dubnyk did have one game where he allowed 6 goals on 17 shots which led to an early hook, but aside from that, he held down the fort to the tune of allowing only 7 goals on 132 shots in 5 games, or a .947 while facing 26.4 shots in the other five games for the math challenged.
While the shot workload that Dubnyk was made to work with isn’t all that staggering empirically, when contrasted against what Minnesota sent the other way against the Blues it becomes more impressive. Over the course of six games, not a single Minnesota skater has more than half of the shot attempts while on the ice at even strength. And this is not an isolated series with the Wild, who have been trending downward in their share of even strength shot attempts since Dubnyk’s arrival. And while on the blue Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin aren’t generally expected to have superior possession numbers and mostly just absorb the other team’s top line (and then some), the middle pair of Scandella and Spurgeon got skulled by the Blues as well. Both of them have the ability to push the pace offensively and Scandella in particular had a breakout offensive year, but they had a lot of trouble getting the puck out of their own end. The third pairing has the project of Matt Dumba being babysat by Jordan Leopold, and while Dumba has the wheels, vision, and shot to make a difference, his partner has far and away the worst rate of possession of any defenseman left in the tournament. And at nearly 35, it’s not entirely reasonable to ask Leopold to get better the more he plays.
Up front, the Wild boast the same attack that has given the Hawks fits the past two post-seasons. While the Wild wanted more out of Mikael Granlund in the regular season, he’s shown to be an adept playmaker for Zach Parise’s micro-sized power forward game and Jason Pominville’s ability to still pull the trigger where he finds space, even if he’s not as active as he once was. It’s allowed Mikko Koivu to slot down as the #2 center he’s always been, and Nino Niederriter has really developed a nice set of hands to go with his wheels. Chris Stewart looks like he’s actually engaged and has been aggressive on the forecheck, which helps that line’s cause as well. On the third line Jason Zucker is probably the fastest skater on either team, and has driven the Hawks nuts. And if his center Charlie Coyle puts it together he has size that really only Brent Seabrook can deal with. And Kyle Brodziak will always score against the Blackhawks no matter the situation.
As for our Men of Four Feathers, it appears once again to be Teuvo Time, with Kris Versteeg at long last taking a seat, apparently due to injury. But given both his own quotes and his coach’s in the press over the last couple of days, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Verbeauty didn’t take the news very well. Regarding Teuvo, in Quenneville-ese, “he’s going to add some speed and predictability on both sides of the puck” as as damning a quote as he’s ever given in Versteeg’s direction. Teuvo will find himself on Antoine Vermette’s right wing opposite Patrick Sharp. If that line is able to produce, particularly while at home and given the advantage of matchups, things will look fairly positive for the Hawks, to put it mildly. Teuvo’s placement there pushes Bryan Bickell up to Richards’ left with Kane, where the hope is Bickell can clear space for Kane, especially if they’re able to get him out against the diminutive Spurgeon. The top and fourth lines will remain the same, as will the defensive pairings. Corey Crawford once again gets claim to the crease, and the Hawks will need him to be consistently solid, as continually flip flopping is in no way a recipe for success.
On home ice, the key will be the matchups Quenneville picks. Koivu is obviously Minnesota’s best two way center, and has given Toews problems in the past, so Q might try to get that line out against the Granlund and Parise line given their size advantage, and to make them defend. Either way Toews and Hossa are going to see a shitload of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin. And while the Vermette and Kruger lines can split time between Koivu and Coyle where there is some defensive responsibility, it will be key to get Richards and Kane out against Minnesota’s fourth line and third pair whenever he can.
Dubnyk is more athletic and sturdy while being similarly sized to Rinne, but lacks his glove hand speed. With a goalie that large and this hot, all of the old war horses of getting to the front of the net and waiting for him to commit will be trotted out, but in truth what the Hawks need is sheer volume. If they’re going to get at Dubnyk enough times for it to matter, it’s going to be through inundating the Minnesota defense with attempts against. And based on their recent track record, they seem to be willing to concede them because in all likelihood Dubnyk will get it if he sees it.
Mike Yeo has shown a propensity to mix up his looks when playing the Hawks, and he has a versatile and smart and deep enough roster to do so. He’s switched from hard forechecking to trapping and back again within the context of a single game, and the Hawks have struggled with it for prolonged stretches. Given what should be a raucous atmosphere on West Madison with the late start time on a Friday, it seems logical that he’d have landmines in neutral ice for the first period to take the crowd out of it, only to release the hounds later on should they get out of the period tied or ahead. It will be up to Quenneville and the Hawks to recognize which tactic he’ll be using and use the appropriate counter.
The Hawks have never beaten an opponent three years in a row in the playoffs, and they had an opportunity to just 4 years ago before Alex Burrows slew that dragon. Minnesota is more equipped than ever to take this the distance if not win the series outright. But they still have to do it on the road without the benefit of the matchups, and that’s where this series will be determined. It starts tonight. Let’s go Hawks.
If you’re heading to tonight’s game, make sure to pick up a copy of our gameday program that we sell outside the United Center. We’ll be there from about 6:30 on. If you’re not going, you can get the digital copy right here.