CHICAGO – There’s almost an unfairness to the fact that the Wild waited 11 long years to finally advance past the first round again and the team barely had time to enjoy it.
“I don’t mind that, to be honest with you,” coach Mike Yeo said Thursday.
Immediately after its thrilling 5-4 overtime Game 7 victory over the Colorado Avalanche, the jubilant Wild boarded its charter, threw back a couple of celebratory beers and flew in the wee hours of Thursday morning from Denver to Chicago.
After a riveting seven-game, emotional roller coaster of an opening round, the Wild must move on. The Wild spent Thursday trying to refocus its minds and reset for the next arduous challenge ahead.
Friday night at United Center, the Wild turns the page on the Central Division-champion Avalanche and opens the Western Conference semifinals against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks — a playoff-tested juggernaut that dispatched the Wild in five games last spring.
The Blackhawks are playing their best hockey of the season. They are rested, too, while the Wild is coming off that grueling physical and mental battle that ended only two days ago. It also enters the series with yet another messed-up goalie situation with Ilya Bryzgalov set to start and Darcy Kuemper once again injured.
For the first time in two weeks, the Wild spent Thursday prepping for a team other than Colorado. The teams play different styles and systems, especially in the defensive zone, where the Avs are one of a handful that play man-to-man defense.
Wednesday’s Game 7 victory was barely over and the Wild coaching staff had the laptops out on the plane prepping for the Blackhawks. After what Yeo called a “solid three hours of sleep,” the coaches spent much of Thursday in a hotel boardroom watching Blackhawks video and devising a game plan. Yeo called a few NHL coaches, but “there’s not going to be an incredible amount of secrets.”
Late Thursday afternoon, before a team dinner, the coaches held a team meeting to talk strategy and to make sure Colorado was in the rearview mirror.
“One thing we have to guard against is just the high of last game and just making sure we don’t have a drop in focus and battle and will that we have to bring to the game,” Yeo said.
Captain Mikko Koivu already began preaching that mantra to teammates.
“Game 1, and it’s going to start from 0-0 and nothing matters what’s behind us,” Koivu said. “I don’t think you can plan a bigger challenge than facing the defending Stanley Cup champions.”
However, the Wild believes it has grown and matured a lot since last year’s inexperienced bunch got smoked in five games in the first round by Chicago. The Wild plays a better team game, is much more defensively sound, has more offensive weapons, more depth and better young talents.
It also enters healthier.
“It’s a different team than we saw last year,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’ve improved in a lot of areas. Their depth and their skill throughout their lineup is improved and their balance in their team is across the board.
“Last year in the first round, I didn’t know what to expect from their team. But it’s a whole different opponent. They’ve got the excitement of winning a round, the excitement of their town behind them. We feel that this is a very dangerous opponent and we have the utmost respect for them.”
Zach Parise, tied for the league lead with 10 playoff points, believes there’s two reasons the Wild got taught a lesson from Chicago last year: 1) The Blackhawks always had the puck; 2) The Blackhawks’ penalty kill shut down the Wild’s power play (0-for-17).
But the Wild is a much better puck possession team. In fact, according to the advanced stats site extraskater.com, no playoff team has had the puck more than the Wild (61.3 percent at 5-on-5).
“To me last year, we were so flat-footed in the neutral zone and all we did was rip it up the boards, chip it in,” Parise said of the Blackhawks series. “The challenge with them is how mobile their defensemen are. They’re really good at retrieving the pucks and skating it out or getting in there before you’re allowed to get your forecheck going. When we’re playing well, our feet are moving. The way we handle the puck as opposed to last year, it’s night and day.
“We’re attacking off the rush, which is something we didn’t do last year. Our neutral zone transition is a lot better and counterattack is a lot better.”
Last year, the Wild was eaten alive by Chicago’s third and fourth lines. As the Wild proved against Colorado, especially in Game 7, the Wild can score from three or four lines and at a minimum continuously pressure in the offensive zone.
“A lot of times, you have your top guys going head to head with each other and your team needs a little help from the other guys to take pressure off the big guys,” said Kyle Brodziak, who had three assists Wednesday. “Hopefully we can continue providing that.”
The Wild was 3-1-1 against the Blackhawks in the regular season, but Parise said, “the regular-season record really doesn’t matter once you get into these games.
“We learned how good you have to play and how good Chicago is [last year]. They really know how to take their game to another level in the playoffs. It was good for us to see how the champs do it.”