CHICAGO | Almost unstoppable with their speed and skills all season, the Blackhawks have a small Achilles heel at which playoff opponents might try to target.
Throwing bodies at the Hawks has been proven to be a hindrance in a few games. The challenge is for the NHL’s President’s Trophy-winning team to artfully play through increased hits and rough stuff as they open the Western Conference quarterfinals tonight here against the Minnesota Wild.
“They’re right up there,” third-line winger Brian Bickell, one of the bigger Hawks, said of the Wild’s physicality. “They got a lot of skills, too. Their bottom two lines are more physical. But I feel our lines can easily match that. If we need to turn up our physical game, we will. I know we had a couple of games recently that were like that.”
Staying the course is the mantra of defenseman Duncan Keith, who has never shied away from an on-ice scrum.
“That’s something we’ve dealt with throughout the year,” Keith said of the Hawks as targets of hits. “Obviously in playoffs it’s going to be magnified a little bit more in that regard. Our job is always to play our game. That’s using our speed and our skill, and trying to make plays with the puck and hang onto the puck. That’s one of the biggest things – sticking to our game plan and what makes us successful.”
The eighth-seed Wild played the Hawks closely in their three regular-season matchups. Minnesota put the first blemish on the Hawks’ record with a shootout victory Jan. 30 at Xcel Energy Center. On March 5, the Hawks won 5-3 at the United Center to set a franchise record with their 10th straight victory. In the finale April 9 in Minnesota, goalie Ray Emery stopped the Wild cold 1-0 on Marian Hossa’s second-period goal.
“You look how the playoffs have gone the last couple of years,” said captain Jonathan Toews. “If you’re the first seed or the eighth seed, it doesn’t really matter.”
Emery and center Dave Bolland, who did not skate at practice Monday, will miss the opener. With Game 2 not until Friday and with the Hawks’ trademark depth, coach Joel Quenneville can afford to let Emery (lower-body injury) and Bolland (groin injury) more time to heal.
Minor-league callup Henrik Karlsson, with 26 NHL games under his belt, will back up hot starter Corey Crawford tonight in goal. Quenneville is further protected with Bolland’s absence in the recent play of veteran center Michal Handzus, particularly on faceoffs. Handzus skated with second-liners Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp Monday.
Overall, the Hawks are in a far better mindset than the past two playoffs after the 2010 Stanley Cup. Quenneville and Co. had to struggle to get into the postseason in those two years, suffering first-round knockouts. But this year’s team established their record-breaking dominance early and never were headed.
“We’re going to have a hungrier team than we’ve seen all year long,” said Quenneville, who predicted a “frantic pace in the playoffs” due to the lockout shortened season.
“Everybody’s going to be fresher,” he said. “The pace is going to be amazing.”