NHL: Hawks Await Second Round Opponent
With the Hawks finishing off the Blues once and for all on Sunday, they are now playing the waiting game to see who they will face in the Western Conference semi-finals. The Avalanche and Wild are amidst a back and forth battle, with game 7 scheduled for Wednesday and the winner set to face the reigning Stanley Cup champs. The big question remains- who would the Hawks rather face? The Hawks’ answers to this have so far been evasive, giving the standard “we are confident in our abilities and play” and “it makes no difference who we play”. But to everyone else, there is a clear preference for opponent. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Avs and Wild.
Colorado Avalanche (52-22-8):
The Avs have extensive playoff experience, including two Stanley Cup victories. This year, they have once again become relevant after several years of rebuilding, finishing first in the Central Division. The Avs are led by scorers Matt Duchene (who just returned from a knee injury) and Ryan O’Reilly, who have a combined 7 points this postseason. Like the Hawks, they dominate games when they score early and often (they sit at 4th in the league in goals scored per game), using their speed to outplay their foe. They rank 5th in the NHL in power play percentage, again, speaking to their scoring abilities. They also maintain 6 forwards with 19 goals or more, which which prevents the opposing defense from keying on any one scorer. Former NHL great Patrick Roy deserves credit for his enthusiasm and success, as a first year coach. But to the weaknesses- the Avs give up an eye-popping 32.7 shots per game, which becomes more problematic deeper into the playoffs, as the leading teams find way to get these shots to the back of the net. They also rank 24th overall in penalty kill percentage, which showcases the Avs as a front loaded team and lacking defensive depth.
Minnesota Wild (43-27-12):
The Wild have not won a playoff series since 2003, but that hasn’t stopped their effort this series. They have done nothing but fight back, and are poised to knock off a heavily favored Avs team, if game 6 was any indication of their capabilities. Forward Zach Parise leads all Wild players with 10 points this postseason, netting 3 goals and assisting 7 times. Though he is clearly the go to scorer, forwards Mikko Koivu (5 assists) and Charlie Coyle (3 goals, 1 assist) have also proved their worth. The Wild boasts a stifling defense, giving up only 2.4 goals per game and goalie Darcy Kuemper allowing only an average of 1.54 goals in the playoffs. In game 6 alone, the Wild placed 32 hits on the Avs (compared to the Avs 18), and managed 9 takeaways to the Avs 1. They thrive when they keep their opponents off balance. Also of note: winger and enforcer Matt Cooke is currently serving a 7 game suspension for his knee-to-knee hit on Tyson Barrie.
Why the Hawks Want to Play the Wild:
The Hawks have proven they are capable of beating a tough defense, but have struggled when facing opponents that share their playing style. During the regular season, the Avs held the advantage over the Hawks, with a record of 3-1-1. Chicago did not fare significantly better against the Wild, with a 2-3 record. The Hawks are capable of beating anyone, but match up better with teams that they can wear down with their speed and goal scoring abilities, like they did against the Blues. The Avs play too much of the same game as the Hawks, and could give them a potentially poisonous taste of their own medicine. The Wild offers an interesting play style that is much slower and more physical, which is a better match for the Hawks’ speed and finesse. This is not to say the Wild is a weaker team, because both are contenders. But in the spirit of hoping, Blackhawks fans should root for Minnesota on Wednesday. Not only would the style match up be a better fit, the Hawks would have home ice advantage at the Madhouse on Madison. Cue “Chelsea Dagger”.