(Phil Velasquez / Chicago…)
Last year the Blackhawks beat the Minnesota Wild in five games to open their run toward reclaiming the Stanley Cup. It was about as forgettable as a playoff series can be, with the Hawks outscoring the Wild 17-7 and never appearing to be in any possible danger of losing four of seven.
What's different about this year's teams, other than the round they're meeting in? Not enough to change the result is the short answer. But we know you won't be satisfied with that, so here are three more things to keep an eye on.
HAWKS OFFENSE > JASON POMINVILLE
On offense, Wild fans are hoping a fully healthy Jason Pominville will be a difference-maker. He played only sparingly in last year's series after a late-season head shot kept him sidelined the first three games. This season he's played in all 89 games for Minnesota, and is their leading scorer with 65 points. That's good … -ish? The Blackhawks had FIVE guys with at least 63 points. Pominville's presence won't be enough to bridge the firepower gap for the Wild.
HAWKS' HEALTH > INJURIES
And somehow Chicago's almost completely healthy after a series with the Blues! Over the past couple of years, almost every single slump the Blackhawks have suffered coincided with one or more of their stars on the bench. Things could change midseries, but with the Wild missing their go-to dirty player, Matt Cooke, due to suspension (for being super dirty) for the first three games, it's even less likely the Blackhawks will get a cheap-shot injury absence from a star.
COREY CRAWFORD > ILYA BRYZGALOV
Minnesota's got a real problem in net. It seems their starting goaltender will have to be 33-year-old Ilya Bryzgalov, who just joined the team in March. He had two great seasons in Phoenix—fiive years ago—and that's about it.
His save percentages by postseason look like the dumbest Price Is Right contestant's row bidding strategy ever: .944, .922, .906, .879, .887 and a measly .826. His GAA (goals-against average) is literally GAH. And the Wild appear to be stuck with him after what happened to normal starter Darcy Kuemper on Thursday against Colorado.
Since it's the playoffs, we'll never know exactly what was hurting Kuemper. But we DO know he missed many end-of-regular-season games due to a concussion and we DO know he got rocked in the head on a freak play in the second period of Thursday night's Game 7 and we DO know he was feeling weird enough to take himself out of a one-goal Game 7 with 8:13 to play in the fricking season.
So I doubt we'll see him at all in this series. It's a full-on Bryzzard warning, and the forecast calls for three inches of hard rubber getting behind Ilya many, many times.
You can't predict a sweep, right? That'd be nuts. Even last year's juggernaut Blackhawks team dropped an overtime Game 3 to these Wild. Feel confident about your Blackhawks winning in five, and start paying attention to those late-night Ducks-Kings battles. THAT winner, my friends, will be a formidable foe in the Western Conference finals.
RedEye special contributor Alex Quigley can be heard from 1-3 p.m. weekdays on 87.7-FM The Game.