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Blackhawks will face a different, better Wild team than 2013

Updated: June 3, 2014 6:40AM



Ever since the postseason came into focus, the Blackhawks seemed destined for a showdown with the Colorado Avalanche.

But instead of the 112-point, Central Division champion Avalanche, the Hawks are facing the 97-point, fourth-place Minnesota Wild in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Instead of having to overcome home-ice disadvantage, they have home ice in their favor. Instead of facing Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov, who had stymied them throughout the regular season, they’re getting third-stringer Darcy Kuemper or perhaps his backup, Ilya Bryzgalov.

The challenge for the defending Stanley Cup champions might be preventing the conventional wisdom to slip into the back of their heads — that they just got a big break from the hockey gods.

“I don’t see it that way,” Hawks winger Patrick Sharp said. “We know what the Wild are capable of. We watched their series [against Colorado] quite a bit. They’ve got a little bit of everything in their lineup. We’re not taking them lightly.”

It will be interesting to see how that plays out when the Hawks face the upstart Wild in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series Friday (8:30 p.m., NBCSN) at the United Center.

The Hawks ousted the Wild in five games in the first round last season. But the Wild is a much-improved team with a number of up-and-coming players — such as 21-year-old forwards Charlie Coyle (three goals, five points against the Avalanche), Mikael Grandlund (two goals, five points) and Nino Niederreiter (two goals, including the game-winner in overtime in Game 7 on Wednesday night).

With workhorse defenseman Ryan Suter and veteran forward Dany Heatley, the Wild is deeper and more balanced than it was last season against the Hawks. A nuisance a year ago, the Wild is now a threat.

“We’re convinced for sure on that,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “This is a good hockey team. It’s a different team than we saw last year. Their depth and skill throughout their lineup is improved, and their balance is across the board — four lines, and three lines probably can all score. This is a dangerous team, and we have the utmost respect for them.”

At the same time, it’s possible the bigger threat from the Wild could elicit a better performance from the talented and experienced Hawks. A year ago, the Hawks waded through their series against the Wild — “an ordinary start” to the playoffs, Quenneville acknowledged. The Hawks tend to respond to the threat level accordingly.

“We’re just worried about us,” defenseman Brent Seabrook said. “We like our team. We like the way we’re playing. We’ve just got to create and keep the puck out of our net.”

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkPotash



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