(Sports Network) - The top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks will try to jump out to
an early lead in the Western Conference quarterfinals on Tuesday, when they
host the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 at United Center.
Chicago busted out of the gates with an NHL-record 24-game point streak
(21-0-3) and from there cruised to its first Central Division title since
2009-10, when the Blackhawks secured the franchise's first Stanley Cup title
in nearly half a century.
The Blackhawks also posted the best record in the NHL, going 36-7-5 for 77
points to win the franchise's second Presidents' Trophy.
As a result of finishing first in the league, the Blackhawks will enter every
series they play this postseason with home-ice advantage. Game 2 of the series
is scheduled for Friday in Chicago before the series shifts to Minnesota for
the third and fourth games on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively.
Chicago rode the NHL's best goaltending tandem to its stellar regular season
in 2013, as Corey Crawford and Ray Emery combined to allow a league-low 102
goals this season. Both goaltenders recorded identical 1.94 goals against
averages, but Emery was 17-1-0 while Crawford went 19-5-5.
With Emery bothered by a lower body injury at the end of the regular season,
Crawford will start in Game 1 with Henrik Karlsson serving as the backup.
However, Emery should be an available option for Quenneville at some point in
the opening round and he could make a switch if Crawford stumbles.
Last spring, Crawford posted a 2.58 GAA and a poor .893 save percentage in six
games as Chicago fell to Phoenix in the opening round. Emery is 20-15 with a
2.57 GAA and .903 save percentage in 36 career playoff games.
"I've prepared myself all year pretty well, so I'm just going to try and do
the same thing I've done all year long," Crawford said after Monday's practice
at United Center.
Chicago is led on offense by several standout forwards, a group that includes
Patrick Kane, team captain Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
Kane and Toews turned in superb regular seasons for Chicago, each scoring 23
goals to tie for the team lead. Kane paced the team with 55 points, while
Toews had 48 points and also finished tied for third in the NHL with a plus-28
rating. Hossa battled some injuries along the way but still managed to finish
third on the team in both goals (17) and points (31). The Slovakian veteran
has the most career playoff points of any Blackhawk, with 36 goals and 61
assists for 97 points over 130 games.
Another key forward Patrick Sharp also missed considerable time down the
stretch with an injury, but he returned before the end of the regular season
and will be ready for Game 1. Sharp had six goals and 14 assists in 28 games
this season and is second to Hossa on Chicago's roster with 23 career playoff
Chicago also had six defensemen reach double digits in points and it was led
by Duncan Keith -- the 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner -- who had 27 points (3
goals, 24 assists) while leading the team with an average of 24 minutes and 6
seconds of ice time per game.
Chicago's depth at both ends helped the team finish third in the NHL in
penalty killing this season, but the club was ranked 19th on the power play.
Overall, Chicago was second in the league with 3.10 goals scored per game.
The eighth-seeded Wild come into this series as serious underdogs after
qualifying for the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Minnesota ended its four-year playoff drought after landing a pair of prized
free agents last summer, when it signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to
identical 13-year, $98 million contracts in July.
Parise, who previously spent his entire career as a prominent winger for the
New Jersey Devils, led the Wild in both goals (18) and points (38) this
season. The 28-year-old Minnesota native is a year removed from helping New
Jersey make it to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, where it lost in six games to
Suter, meanwhile, left former defensive partner Shea Weber behind in Nashville
and did just fine outside of the Music City, turning in a campaign that could
make him a finalist for the Norris Trophy. His 32 points (4G, 28A) this season
more than doubled the output of Jared Spurgeon, who finished next on the
Minnesota blue line with 15 points on five goals and 10 assists.
Although the addition of Parise and Suter helped improve the Wild, the club is
still dogged by depth issues at both ends of the ice. The problem was
exacerbated when winger Dany Heatley, the club's leading scorer in 2011-12,
suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in April. Another one of the club's
key forwards, Jason Pominville, was acquired from Buffalo at the trade
deadline, but he enters the postseason with a concussion and is questionable
for Game 1.
Chicago center Dave Bolland, meanwhile, will miss tonight's game due to a
lower body injury.
Minnesota finished tied for 22nd in the league in scoring with 2.46 goals per
game and the power play was ranked 16th. The Wild were also middle of the pack
in team defense, surrendering an average of 2.60 goals per game to tie them
for 15th in the league.
There are also concerns in the crease, as 35-year-old starter Niklas Backstrom
brings a lifetime playoff record of 3-8 into this postseason.
Backstrom was a workhorse all season long for the Wild, starting 41 of the
team's 48 games and recording a 24-15-3 record and 2.48 GAA. Yeo likely will
have to sink or swim with Backstrom in this series, as both of his backup
options -- Darcy Kuemper or Josh Harding -- offer little in the way of playoff
Although the Blackhawks and Minnesota North Stars faced off six times in the
playoffs over a 10-year stretch from 1982-91, this will mark the first
postseason encounter between Chicago and the Wild.
The Blackhawks won two of three meetings against Minnesota during the season
series and Chicago also gained a point in the only loss, a 3-2 shootout
setback in St. Paul on Jan. 30. Chicago also recorded a 5-3 home win against
the Wild on March 5 and Emery backstopped the Blackhawks to a 1-0 road victory
in Minnesota on April 9.
Crawford went 1-0-1 with a 2.40 GAA vs. the Wild. Backstrom was 1-2-0 with a
2.19 GAA in the season series.
The Blackhawks turned in an excellent 18-3-3 home record during the regular
season, while Minnesota was just 12-11-1 on the road.
The Sports Network