After a year in which the Chicago Blackhawks earned at least one point in 24 straight games to start the regular season and won the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record, their playoff journey starts with a matchup against the Minnesota Wild.
The Blackhawks are the clear favorite in the Western Conference. Only the Eastern Conference's top seed, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are in the same class heading into the postseason.
While it appears those teams are on a Stanley Cup collision course, the Los Angeles Kings showed last season that it's impossible to rule any team out at this point. It's a clean slate for all 16 teams.
Chicago last won the Cup at the end of the 2009-10 season. In two trips to the playoffs since, the Hawks were eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes in the opening round. They are hoping to end that streak before it becomes a worrisome trend.
Let's take a look at the full schedule for their first-round series against the Wild. It's followed by a complete breakdown of the matchup, including players that must shine for the Blackhawks to move one step closer to another Cup.
|1||Tuesday, April 30||8 p.m.||NBCSN, CBC|
|2||Friday, May 3||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN, CBC|
|3||Sunday, May 5||3 p.m.||NBC, CBC|
|4||Tuesday, May 7||9:30 p.m.||NBCSN, CBC|
|5*||Thursday, May 9||TBA||CBC|
|6*||Saturday, May 11||TBA||CBC|
|7*||Sunday, May 12||TBA||CBC|
*Denotes if necessary.
Regular-Season Record and Leaders
Record: 36-7-5 (77 points)
Goals Leader: Patrick Kane & Jonathan Toews (23)
Assists Leader: Patrick Kane (32)
Points Leader: Patrick Kane (55)
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Brandon Saad||Jonathan Toews||Marian Hossa|
|Patrick Sharp||Michal Handzus||Patrick Kane|
|Bryan Bickell||Andrew Shaw||Viktor Stalberg|
|Brandon Bollig||Marcus Kruger||Michael Frolik|
|Duncan Keith||Brent Seabrook|
|Johnny Oduya||Niklas Hjalmarsson|
|Nick Leddy||Michal Rozsival|
First-Round Series Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Deep Scoring Group
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa lead the offensive attack for Chicago. The trio combined to score 63 goals during the regular season and will be expected to carry the load again in the playoffs. The good news for Chicago is it has depth, as well.
In the playoffs, there's always an unsung hero that emerges to help push a team over the top. Last season, Dustin Penner played the role for the Kings. When the Hawks won the Cup a few years ago, Dave Bolland often picked up the slack.
Bolland is going to miss the start of the series with a groin injury (via USA Today). A couple players capable of going from unheralded to vital to Chicago's success include Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell. Having those type of players to support Kane, Toews and Hossa is key.
Biggest Weakness: Unproven Playoff Goalies
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, who's listed as doubtful for the opener by USA Today, split time during the regular season. Both of them posted terrific numbers, with goals against averages below two and save percentages above .920.
While those numbers would suggest the Blackhawks are in good hands between the pipes regardless of who earns the majority of the starts, neither has proven themselves in the postseason. And there's a big difference between regular-season hockey and playoff hockey.
The play tightens up, each mistake is magnified and it becomes tougher to hide behind Chicago's stalwart defense as opponents get more accustomed to the matchup. Emery's injury will give Crawford the first crack to lock down the starting spot, but one of them will have to show they can handle the pressure if the Hawks are going to advance.
Key Matchup: Penalty Kill vs. Minnesota Power Play
The only way Minnesota pulls off the massive upset is if they dominate on special teams. At even strength, the Blackhawks hold a clear advantage in every area. Over the course of a seven-game series, that superiority eventually shines through.
That is unless the Wild can level the playing field with great work on the power play. Zach Parise scored seven of his 18 goals on the man advantage while Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter combined for 25 assists on special teams.
Luckily for Chicago, it ranked No. 3 on the penalty kill at just over 87 percent. The Hawks also scored five shorthanded goals. If they can continue their efficient play while a man down, they should be able to cruise past the Wild.
Key Player: Jonathan Toews
Toews is Mr. Everything for the Blackhawks. He's one of the leading scorers, plays key roles on both special-teams units and is also the captain. Amazingly, he's never let the immense pressure have a major impact on his play.
If Chicago is going to avoid letting Minnesota turn this into a tight series, Toews must guide the way. Whether it's dropping down to block a shot or battling in front of the net, leading by example goes a long way at this point in the season. Every little play suddenly becomes a big one.
The Hawks are the more talented team and should be able to advance quickly. Even though there were high expectations in Minnesota before the season began, it appears the Wild are still a year away. Toews and Co. have to make sure that narrative doesn't change.
Blackhawks in 5 games