You’d be hard pressed to find a Chicago Blackhawks player who didn’t watch the Minnesota Wild’s Game 7 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night.
They were watching, mainly, to see who their second-round opponent would be. But while they were watching, they were also recognizing: this was not the same Wild team the Blackhawks played in the first round last season. This is a team that isn’t just slipping into the postseason; this is a team playing with a ton of confidence and sporting an all-around solid game.
The Blackhawks gained home-ice advantage thanks to the Wild, who they’ll host in Game 1 of their second-round series on Friday night. The Blackhawks took this series in five games during the first round last season, but the Wild is a different group in 2014.
“It is definitely a different team,” said coach Joel Quenneville on Thursday. “You’ve got to commend them on how they played at the end of the year to get themselves in the playoffs. Had a great run and had a lot of momentum going into that series, and they played a great series. You watch them last night. They played very structured, very solid game.”
Marian Hossa was also impressed by the Wild’s Game 7 rally.
“They played an unbelievable series against Colorado. In Game 7 they were always coming back. That’s amazing,” Hossa said. “It seems like a great group and it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Indeed, while it has been altered a few times, their goaltending has been solid. Darcy Kuemper was a big reason for most of that, as he started the Wild’s final four games of the first round. He was injured, however, and his status moving forward is not known yet. Also, the Wild’s top players are performing as such. Zach Parise, held to just one goal in last year’s first-round series vs. the Blackhawks, had 10 points vs. the Avalanche. Mikko Koivu had six points in seven games and several, including Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley, had five points.
The Blackhawks are prepared for a tough task.
“They make it tough to make plays, to generate chances and get to the net. They frustrate you that way,” Patrick Sharp said. “Having said that, they also have a number of players who can make you pay (offensively). They don’t have any weak spots, if you ask me.”
The Blackhawks are feeling strong and refreshed after their first-round series victory over the St. Louis Blues, and the rest they had after it. Now a new challenge looms. They’re familiar with the Wild, certainly. But assuming it is the same Minnesota team of last spring would be a mistake.
“Last year in the first round, I didn't know what to expect from their team. But it's a whole different opponent,” Quenneville said. “They've got the excitement of winning a round, the excitement of their town behind them, and as you progress in the playoffs they don't get any easier. We feel that this is a very dangerous opponent and we have the utmost respect for them.”