CHICAGO | Waking up to the news Thursday the Blackhawks had drawn the Minnesota Wild as their Western Conference semifinals opponent, many pundits and Las Vegas oddsmakers set the defending Stanley Cup champs as prohibitive favorites.
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville and his players, however, would never be counted in that group. They took notice how the Wild dueled the fast and motivated Colorado Avalanche to a nearly a quarterfinals draw, finally winning in overtime in Game 7 late Wednesday in Denver.
Quenneville was posed a question Thursday on how the Hawks rise to the occasion when their opponent is perceived as a real threat, a la the just-vanquished St. Louis Blues. Would the Hawks in the back of their minds view the Wild as an equivalent challenge?
“We’re convinced, for sure, on that,” Quenneville said. “This is a good hockey team. It’s a different team than we saw last year (when the Hawks beat them 4-games-to-1 in the quarterfinals).
“They improved in a lot of areas. Their depth and their skill throughout their lineup has improved. Their balance on their team across the board – four lines probably can all score. There’s a lot of respect on our team. They’ve got the excitement of winning a round, they got the excitement of their town behind them…This is a very dangerous opponent and we have the utmost respect for them.”
The Hawks have no choice but to dig deep in the semis. The Wild beat them three out of five games in the regular season, including a 5-3 victory Oct. 26 at the United Center.
As with St. Louis, Minnesota now plays with emotions against the Hawks. A geographic rivalry is budding.
“Now they’re in our division this year, you get to see them a little bit more,” Quenneville said. “That’s one way of getting enemies on the other side and creating some animosity. I’m sure they got a history between Colorado and Minnesota. I think ours is in place. You can expect both buildings to be loud. The excitement in the cities is definitely going to be there.”
Of course, the Wild is known for stars like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Nino Niederreiter became the toast of the Twin Cities with his overtime series-clinching goal in Denver.
But their goaltending has been in flux. Wild coach Mike Yeo, a young, creative sort, has juggled five different goalies this year. Starter Darcy Kuemper was hit by the Avalanche’s Matt Duchene behind the net in the second period in Game 7. He was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov, whose continued presence prompted predictions of an easy Hawks victory.
Again, the advocates of a cakewalk aren’t emanating from the Hawks.
“Bryzgalov has been around for awhile,” said defenseman Brent Seabrook. “Lots of guys have played against him. He’s played against us this year. We just got to go up there and get our opportunities and try to score.
“We didn’t see Ryan Miller a lot either. We were able to play and score some goals against him. We think Bryzgalov’s a good goalie. We’re going to have to bear down when we get around the net and do the things that make us successful.”
Offensively, the Wild have proved they can score.
“Everyone said it’s a patient, frustrating style,” said winger Patrick Sharp. “They’ve got some players that can score goals and make some plays and play that high-end offensive game as well. They don’t really have any weak spots if you ask me.”
The Hawks are as healthy as can be expected in the middle of the playoffs. Captain Jonathan Toews missed practice Thursday because he was a “little under the weather,” said Quenneville, but is expected to play tonight.