The Central Division Finals will feature a matchup of “underdog” first round winners, as the Blackhawks and Wild were the third and fourth seeds respectively in the division. I wouldn’t really call the Hawks beating Nashville much of an upset, but Minnesota taking down the Blues was a little bit more surprising, although St. Louis has now failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season.
This is the second year in a row the Wild have taken down a top seeded team in the first round, and this will also be a rematch of last year’s Central Division Final that resulted in a 4-2 win for the Hawks.
What should we expect from this rematch?
Last year, it took Chicago six games to defeat the Wild and advance to the Western Conference Finals. But this year, the Wild are a much better team, especially since they acquired Devan Dubnyk and completely turned around their season.
The Hawks and Wild met five times this season, with the Hawks winning three in regulation and the Wild winning two. The Hawks won their first three match ups by at least two goals in each game, but the Wild have won the two most recent games, by scores of 3-0 and 2-1. All three of the Hawks’ wins in the season series came before the Wild acquired Dubnyk, which isn’t surprising because the pre and post Dubnyk Minnesota are two very, very different teams. In fact, in his two games against Chicago this season, Dubnyk has stopped 56 of 57 shots. Before him, Nicklas Backstrom allowed 13 goals on 94 shots.
The Wild weren’t really much of a power play threat during the regular season, posting one of the world power play percentages in the league at 15.8 per cent, but the man advantage was pretty critical in the first round win against St. Louis. The Blues gave Minnesota only 12 power play opportunities over their sic game series, but the Wild managed to covert on three of them, which is big, considering they only scored 10 goals in the series (not counting the four they scored into an empty net).
The one thing the Wild did really well this year was penalty killing. In fact, they were the best team in the league at killing penalties this season. They were in the bottom third in the league in power play opportunities against, which suggests they have solid overall team discipline, and they had a very impressive penalty kill efficiency of 86.3 percent. The Hawks also had a really solid penalty kill, as they were right up there with the Wild as one of the best in the league, allowing only 35 power play goals on 211 opportunities throughout the season.
I don’t think special teams will play a huge role in this series considering both of the two teams have been two of the more disciplined teams in the league all year. If it does, though, Chicago has the advantage, because they have a much stronger power play than the Wild, while each team has a good penalty kill.
Chicago was one of the best teams in the league this year at even strength, boasting the second highest Corsi For percentage and the seventh highest Fenwick For percentage at five on five this season. They also managed to pretty heavily dominate the Predators, one of the better possession teams in the league this season, at even strength throughout their first round series. The Hawks also continued to dominate in close situations, beating Nashville pretty handily in the Corsi battle and the scoring chance department when the game was wither tied or within one goal.
The Wild, on the other hand, were an above average possession team at even strength this season, but they weren’t on the same level as the Hawks. The Wild were also dominated more than anybody else in the first round at even strength when adjusting for score, as the Blues managed to out chance them 56.3 percent to 43.7 per cent.
It’s pretty easy to see that the Hawks have the advantage in the even strength department, whether you like advanced stats or not. Very few teams, if any, are as good as Chicago at even strength, so the Wild are likely going to need to look to Devan Dubnyk to carry them through this series.
This goaltending duel is basically the battle of guys who blew up on to the scene this season. One of them was picked in the first round 10 years ago, the other came out of nowhere, but now they’ve emerged as two of the better goalies in the playoffs.
As I said earlier, the Hawks haven’t beaten the Wild yet this season with Darling in net, but the Wild also haven’t beaten Darling. Darling has been better than Dubnyk so far in the playoffs, but Darling has seen less action, and Dubnyk has been better over a longer period of time, so I would give Minnesota the edge here. Corey Crawford will be given the start in game one due to Darling struggling in the final game of the series against Nashville, but if he;s awful like he was in the first round, Darling will be back in net.
Regardless, the Wild and Hawks as a team have damn near the exact same even strength teams save percentage through the playoffs so far, if that counts for anything.
It’s pretty difficult to bet against Chicago, considering they seem to have the upper hand in this series in pretty much every imaginable category aside from goaltending, and even that’s questionable, considering how solid Darling was against Nashville. I’m going to guess this is an exact repeat of last season, Chicago wins in 6.