The Chicago Blackhawks will resume practice on Wednesday morning still uncertain of their second-round opponent.
The first round has been filled with entertaining and dramatic hockey, and it continues on Wednesday night when the Colorado Avalanche hosts Game 7 against the Minnesota Wild. If Colorado wins, it has home-ice advantage. If it’s the Wild, the Blackhawks will have the home-ice edge. In both cases, games dates and times will be announced later.
So who will it be? Will it be the Avalanche, whose goaltender was a hard-to-solve puzzle for the Blackhawks throughout the regular season? Or will it be the Wild, who the Blackhawks faced in the first round last postseason? While we wait to see how that Game 7 transpires, let’s look at each team and the challenges each presents to the Blackhawks.
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The focus of frustration: We’ve got two words for you: Semyon Varlamov. Oh, the Avs goaltender made life tough on the Blackhawks this regular season, didn’t he? Varlamov had five appearances against the Blackhawks including four starts, all of which he won. He allowed just seven goals against the Blackhawks, carrying a 1.59 goals-against average and .960 save percentage against them. The Blackhawks have thrown plenty of pucks at Varlamov; they had 37 or more shots on goal in each of his four starts. But if we recall, the net traffic wasn’t as prevalent as it needed to be. The Blackhawks will need that to be successful. They also might watch what the Wild did against Varlamov. Through six games, Minnesota has gotten 15 goals past him.
The experience factor: The Avs are getting a taste of postseason adversity; they started this series up 2-0, yet are now facing a Game 7. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have a wealth of experience, good and bad, in the postseason. They know how to come back from deficits, from trailing 1-3 last season against the Detroit Red Wings to being down 0-2 to the Blues this spring. They also know how to close things out when they have the chance to eliminate their opponent. All of that can loom large this time of year.
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Speed on speed: If this series comes to fruition it’s going to be a track meet on ice. The Avalanche have some tremendous talent, from their young captain Gabriel Landeskog to Paul Stastny to Matt Duchene, who returned for Game 6 against Minnesota. They’re fast, they attack and they’re very Blackhawks-like in that way. This won’t be like the first round, where the Blues played one game and the Blackhawks another; got very similar opponents here.
Just insert another goaltender: Remember last postseason when Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom was injured in Game 1 warmups? Enter Josh Harding; the Blackhawks ultimately had too many offensive weapons but Harding performed well under the circumstances. This season it’s been Darcy Kuemper, who relieved Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 and has started ever since. Kuemper has been stellar, sporting a 1.53 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage (Corey Crawford is at .935).
Stars playing like stars: The biggest example of this is Zach Parise. The forward was pretty quiet last April against the Blackhawks. He’s not quiet this first round. Parise has at least one point in all six games (three goals, seven assists) against the Avs, including a four-point night in the Wild’s Game 6 triumph. The Blackhawks kept him from being a threat last postseason; they’ll have to do it again this spring.
Now this last item goes for both squads.
Getting some rest: Neither the Wild nor Avs will come into the second round fresh. They’ll be coming off a seven-game series, with perhaps a day or two in between that ending and the second round’s beginning. If you’re the Blackhawks, there may be concern with all the rest they’ve gotten. Perhaps they come back rusty; perhaps they lose momentum built off that four-game winning streak against the Blues. But considering how much of a grind the playoffs are, we’re going with rest as a benefit, not a liability.