Saturday night, the Minnesota Wild needed a win over the Colorado Avalanche to make the playoffs. They won 3-1, and will face the Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Blackhawks went 2-0-1 vs Minnesota this season, and while they'll enter the series as heavy favorites, the Wild are truly a team that shouldn't be taken lightly. In fact, of the three potential first round opponents (Detroit, Columbus and Minnesota), the Wild will likely provide the toughest competition for the Hawks.
Minnesota were the big winners in free agency this summer. They landed the offseason's two biggest fish...defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise. Suter has played Norris Trophy level defense this season and finished third on the team in scoring, with 4 goals, 28 assists and 32 points. Parise lead the team in scoring with 18 goals, 20 assists and 38 points. They've been all the Wild hoped they'd be when they signed these two superstars.
But the Wild's talent doesn't end there. Up front, Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Devin Setoguchi are 2nd tier forwards who can score consistently, while veterans Cal Clutterbuck and Mike Rupp bring the physicality. They also added winger Jason Pominville from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline. Since being acquired, Pominville has scored 9 points in 11 games. Dany Heatley, who once scored 50 goals for the Ottawa Senators, is out for the remainder of the season and playoffs with a shoulder injury.
In addition to Suter on the blue line, Tom Gilbert, Jared Spurgeon and 19 year old Jonas Brodin make up a solid, if unspectacular defensive corps.
In goal, Minnesota leans heavily on veteran Niklas Backstrom, who started 41 of the Wild's 48 games this season. While he's hardly a household name, Backstrom has been one of the NHL's most dependable and consistent goaltenders of the last 5-7 years. His career record of 184-124-56 is impressive considering he played on some pretty awful Wild teams. This season, his numbers (2.52, .907) were a bit below his career average, but the Wild finally crept away from the smothering left wing lock style of play. They started taking chances offensively, as opposed to the "wait it out and pray for the other team to mess up" approach they had for most of their existence.
Long time Blackhawk fans have to be feeling a little itchier than others with the news of this first round match up. The last time the Blackhawks won the Presidents' Trophy (1990-91), the Minnesota North Stars eliminated them in six first round games.
As a fan, I'm very excited about this series. With the Red Wings headed to the Eastern Conference next season, the Wild will move in to the Hawks' division. There's no better way to ignite a rivalry than playing an intense playoff series. It should be Wild. Ha ha. Get it? Wild?
PREDICTION : Blackhawks in an ugly six