Sunday, April 28, 2013

Too close for comfort...and a prediction

With regular season behind them, Wild, Blackhawks get set to face each other in Round One of 2013 NHL Playoffs

By Wild Road Tripper

That was close. Too close.

The Minnesota Wild, who almost backed all the way out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, did manage to right the ship of state in time to save their season Saturday night at Pepsi Center, defeating the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As thousands of fans watched in angst at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, where the Blue Jackets thought that their 3-1 win, over the Nashville Predators, would just be enough to qualify for their second playoff run in the franchise's history, the Wild managed to just squeak in as the No. 8 seed in the NHL's Western Conference.

The Wild will begin their best-of-7 series with the Chicago Blackhawks on either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the whims of the NBC Sports Network, who controls what games are placed in what order by the League contractually. NBCSN -- which used to be known as Versus -- would like to keep the League's stars (Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, the Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings) on their network as much as possible.

And, there is the question in the Eastern Conference of who will play whom, as there is one game to be played today -- the postponed Ottawa at Boston game, which was originally scheduled for April 15th, the date of the Boston Marathon bomb attacks. This game needs to be played, in order to determine playoff positioning for 3 of the 4 Eastern Conference series.

Until that game is played, none of the dates/times for any of the series will probably be announced, so it will be anywhere up to mid-late evening before the times might be known.

As the two teams prepare to enter the playoffs -- the pressure-filled, hyper-intense world of hockey beyond the end of the regular season -- the fact of the matter is clear: The Wild are the second-biggest underdog in the NHL playoffs. Only the New York Islanders -- who will end up facing the Pittsburgh Penguins, should Ottawa lose in OT or the shootout tonight in Boston -- would probably be a larger underdog.

Regardless of when the Wild-Blackhawks series starts, the best thing for the Wild to do is simplify your game. No more Clayton Stoner cross-ice passes to be intercepted by Marian Hossa. No Justin Falk missed checks leading to Patrick Kane odd-man rushes on goal. No more Tom Gilbert passes to the empty quarter of the offensive zone, only to be intercepted and shot down the ice, killing yet another chance. Don't expect Pierre-Marc Bouchard to Spin-o-Rama his way to a Stanley Cup. Or much from Zenon Konopka, Mike Rupp, or Torrey Mitchell, but for Mitchell, for the fact he has to play on the same line (Wild's 4th) with the other two.

Chicago's strength is that their four lines are better than yours, matched up line-for-line (1st vs. 1st, 2nd vs. 2nd, 3rd vs. 3rd, and 4th vs. 4th). Their defense is better than yours (especially the bottom three), and their goaltending has improved dramatically, as opposed to Wild workhorse Niklas Backstrom, who has played in 82% of the Wild's season.

The Wild will make this an interesting series, and may just sneak a win out of the United Center. Maybe. But then, under the pressure of the home crowd, with 20,000 people at Xcel Energy Center (they will try for this number of tickets sold, for each game in this series) screaming 'SHOOT' every time the power play stalls and become a pass-fest, the Wild will eventually wilt under the relentless attack of the Blackhawks. What the Hawks are, is what the Wild wants to achieve. They just aren't there...yet. But, they're getting there. At least the Wild are, finally, on their way.

PREDICTION: Hawks in 6.

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