They didn’t give us a whole lot of time, did they? About five minutes after Nino Neiderreiter taught the Avalanche about regression and market correction, the NHL announced that Game 1 between the Hawks and the Wild would be on Friday night with Game 2 to follow Sunday afternoon.
While I don’t put too much stock in it, the schedule should give the Hawks something of an advantage. The Wild’s mind might still be in Denver when they show up here Friday (if not their lungs) and they won’t get much more time after that to refocus on Game 2. And make no mistake, they Wild have to take one of the games here this weekend to have any chance. The Hawks are not the Avalanche and are likely not going to biff two road games in a row for the second time these playoffs. So the Hawks may get something of a distracted opponent.
But that doesn’t mean they can start booking their hotels in Southern California just yet. This Minnesota team is better than the one the Hawks curbed last spring, possibly much better, and is playing its best hockey. It’s also coming off perhaps the franchise’s signature win (Andrew Brunette would like a word) and may be riding the high figuring it’s on house money now with nothing to lose. And it’s not exactly like the Hawks dominated the Wild in the regular season.
Let’s go to the tale of the tape, shall we?
Ilya Bryzgalov/Darcy Kuemper
I don’t think there’s a more perfect symbol of the fraud that was the Avalanche than with seven minutes to go and a goal lead they got The Universe coming in cold to replace Kuemper and they mustered all of two shots in the rest of the 3rd and overtime. Because Bryz was pretty much a disaster in Games 1 and 2, which necessitated the call to Kuemper, who was pretty damn good. I haven’t seen anything today about what Kuemper’s status is (another bonus of this series is you can check the work of the superlative Michael Russo [@russostrib]), but I’m going to guess he’s going to be a go at some point in this series. And I’d say likely Game 1.
Kuemper is a big, big man. He’s 6-5, and pretty athletic. Think Pekka Rinne. Though he’s not as highlight-reel as Rinne is at times or as dependent on his glove-hand. Kuemper lets his size do most of the work and is extremely positionally sound. Getting him moving is going to be paramount because when he doesn’t have time to set up is when he can be beaten. A lot of the Avs goals against him were off the rush or off one-timers, and the Hawks will have to have the same plan. This is not the Kuemper who had to come in last spring and was completely overmatched. He’s not capable of stealing a series (yet) but he can make for some anxious moments.
If it’s Bryz… well, that’s a little easier. Though Bryzgalov was excellent and the best deadline goalie pickup this year to finish the regular season, he wasn’t very good in the first round. He let in 8 goals on 46 shots in that series, which is a SV% of .826. Combine this with pretty putrid playoff performances with Phoenix and two with the Flyers, and Wild fans will be praying for Kuemper’s health.
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
While Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester both made Team Canada, I could argue this pairing is better than that. They’ll also play 30 minutes at least, unless coach Mike Yeo splits them up to deal with the multiple forces on the Hawks–something he did do late in the year. While Nate MacKinnon had everyone spraying their shorts in Games 1 and 2 and 5, when Yeo could get these two out against him at home in the other games he was pretty much a ghost.
Suter is as good as it gets, and you could wonder why he isn’t a Norris finalist over his former teammate Shea Weber. He averaged almost three more minutes of ice time this year than anyone else in the league, and he’ll be tickling 30 per this series as well. Brodin remains the best kept secret in the league, even from his Swedish Olympic team. Just smooth in every way, the kid never seems to panic even though he’s not really all that big. That new calmness with the puck that we’ve admired with Hjalmarsson the past couple seasons? Brodin has oozed it since he arrived. He’s a little more physical than he was last year, but he won’t be banging and crashing or anything like that. The problem for the Wild is that these two can only play against one line at a time. So even if they are able to neutralize Toews and Hossa, there’s no answer for Kane and Sharp.
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
I suppose you could say that these two are as responsible for the Avs’ demise as the top two. The top two’s brilliance was pretty much a given, but Scandella and the uber-smurf Spurgeon were much better than expected, capped off by Spurgeon’s clowning of MacKinnon’s shot block attempt and then scorching Varlamov to tie the game late in Game 7 (why can’t you do that, Duncs?).
But they’re not impenetrable, and not by a long shot. Spurgeon can do a lot of things but one of them isn’t morphing into a 6-4 being, so he can get pretty mauled in the corners at 5-9 or whatever he actually is. Scandella has the opposite problem in that he does have the size but not always the feet. He’s got a big shot from the point so watch that though he only had three goals on the season. They’re both bent on pressing the play, so the Hawks will probably catch them once or twice on a bad pinch or turnover. They’re still young and feeling their oats after a superb series, but this should be a wake up.
Nate Prosser-Clayton Stoner
Strangely, in the games against the Hawks this year these two were really good when you would figure they would be the ones being picked on. Prosser is an irritable cuss who is going to make life hell on anyone approaching the Wild crease. Stoner is basically the “guy” on this blue line, though flagrant false advertising.
Overall, the Hawks can erode this how they always do, with depth. Suter and Brodin may be able to keep a top line quiet, but the rest are going to struggle, especially if the Hawks actually deign to have a 4th line this series. And neither Kuemper or Bryz can pick up all the pieces.
I’ll be back this afternoon to do the forwards.