Updated: June 3, 2014 6:40AM
Home-ice advantage. No Semyon Varlamov. An opponent down to its third- and possibly fourth-string goalies. And the big, bad Kings and Ducks beating each other up for the next two weeks.
On paper, everything’s coming up Blackhawks. Of the eight teams left in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Minnesota Wild has the longest odds of winning it all, according to Las Vegas bookmakers. But while the draw is opening up for the Hawks after their grueling first-round victory over the St. Louis Blues, this second-round series won’t be a gimme. The Hawks largely sleepwalked through a five-game victory over the Wild last spring in the first round, but this year’s model is deeper, more experienced and better.
Here are three X-factors that could decide the series:
Who’s in goal?
Noteworthy: First, Josh Harding was sidelined with a setback related to his multiple sclerosis. Then Niklas Backstrom was shut down for the season with lower-body injuries. Now Darcy Kuemper is nursing an injury suffered late in the Wild’s Game 7 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. That leaves the enigmatic and occasionally brilliant Ilya Bryzgalov (above) in net for Minnesota in Game 1, with John Curry — a 30-year-old with six NHL games to his credit — as his backup. Bryzgalov was acquired at the trade deadline for insurance but won the starting job down the stretch, before losing it back to Kuemper in Game 2.
Quoteworthy: “I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to unfold [Friday] night, but we’ll talk about either goalie, how you can exploit them or any advantage you can get by where you put the puck and going to the net,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But I think that the simplicity of getting to every goalie, you find out about them by just making sure that we put pucks and bodies at the net.”
Noteworthy: Neither Patrick Sharp nor Marian Hossa had a bad series against St. Louis. But they each had only one goal in six games. It wasn’t for a lack of chances, however, which is why neither player was terribly concerned. Eventually, though, the Hawks will need their biggest stars to start producing, not just generating. Sharp was the Hawks’ most consistent scorer in the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup runs, and when Hossa gets hot, he tends to score in bunches. Both are eager to break out in a big way.
Quoteworthy: “I think it’s tougher for everybody to score in the playoffs, but you’re asking me about my game,” Sharp said. “I feel like I’ve scored a lot in the playoffs in the past, and I know I’ll score in the future.”
Noteworthy: The Hawks proved last year (just as the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins did before them) that you can win the Stanley Cup with a lousy power play, just as long as you have a strong penalty kill. That formula worked just fine against the Blues — the Hawks lead the postseason with a 93.1 percent kill rate, while scoring only three power-play goals on 20 chances. But just imagine if the Hawks could find the power-play groove that had them in the top five of the league for most of the season.
Quoteworthy: “In the last game [against St. Louis], we killed off a bunch of big penalties to pretty much win that hockey game, and then our power play comes out and scores a big goal, so special teams is important,” goalie Corey Crawford said. “There are huge momentum swings in the playoffs when you take a penalty, and then you get it back when you kill it.”
This Wild team is better than the one the Hawks saw last year, but the Hawks reasserted themselves as the team to beat in the West with their handling of St. Louis. Hawks in 5.