THREE KEY PLAYERS
Parise visibly lights up when he talks about the playoffs, and we may not have seen the best of him yet. The man who looks like the Tasmanian Devil the way his legs always are churning, Parise led the Wild with 18 goals and 38 points and finished third in the NHL with 182 shots. The Wild will desperately need the first-line left winger to come through in the clutch alongside captain Mikko Koivu and rookie Charlie Coyle.
Starting to gain momentum as a Norris Trophy front-runner as the league’s top defenseman, Suter was just as advertised when the Wild signed him last summer in a tag team with Parise. A workhorse who led the NHL by logging a franchise-record 27 minutes, 16 seconds a game, Suter knows what it’s like to play a playoff game in Chicago. Paired with rookie Jonas Brodin, he will have to go head-to-head with Chicago’s slew of stars.
Simply put, it doesn’t matter how much offense the Wild generates or how well it defends if Backstrom isn’t the backbone. We have seen the best of Backstrom this season and the worst, and lately he has shown signs of a goaltender who was overworked, having started 30 of the final 32 games. Backstrom tied for the league lead with 24 victories but ranked 23rd in goals-against average (2.48) and 28th in save percentage (.909). He must stand tall if the Wild is to have a chance.
ONE UNSUNG HERO
The veteran center is so critical to the Wild’s success. We saw for six weeks this season that when the Wild began to soar, so did Cullen, who developed incredible chemistry with linemate Devin Setoguchi. Cullen, one of two Wild players to win a Stanley Cup (Mike Rupp is the other), had 24 points during one 28-game stretch. In seven games since returning from a knee injury, he had two assists.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Bluntly, it doesn’t come easy. The Wild, playing without injured goal-scorer Dany Heatley, has the capability to make any goaltender look like a Vezina Trophy winner. There was a 16-game stretch in which the Wild scored 58 goals (three or more in 11 games), but other than that, it’s been tough sledding. The Wild desperately need Jason Pominville to return from an injury and for Kyle Brodziak and Cal Clutterbuck to chip in.
Suter and Brodin will play half the game, partly because they are so good, and partly because the others have been unreliable. Clayton Stoner must keep it simple. He made a lot of bad plays with the puck down the stretch,lowlighted by his pass to Marian Hossa in a 1-0 loss to Chicago on April 9. Marco Scandella’s return could help. Sounds elementary, but Wild can’t give up the first goal. Chicago was a league-best 26-2-1 when scoring first.
The Wild rode Backstrom all year. It won’t stop now. If something happens to Backstrom, look out. Backup Josh Harding has played once since Feb. 7 and hasn’t started since being pulled Jan. 30 against Chicago (a 3-2 shootout victory for the Wild).
Mike Yeo’s job still could be in jeopardy if this is a quick and painful exit. But he has won a Stanley Cup as a Pittsburgh assistant, and his current assistants — Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor — have both won Cups (Sydor as a player).
The Wild’s home power play, maybe because of the persistent screaming of “SHOOOOOT” from the faithful, was dreadful. How do you explain third worst at home and second best on the road? The Wild’s penalty kill better be good. It finished 18th in the NHL.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Wild’s power-play percentage on the road.
Record when scoring first (seventh best in the NHL).
Regulation victories in the past 15 games vs. Chicago.