After 3-1 loss to the Blues all focus is on the Minnesota Wild - New York News

After 3-1 loss to the Blues all focus is on the Minnesota Wild

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The Chicago Blackhawks fell to St. Louis 3-1 in their final game of the regular season. It was a meaningless contest for the Hawks but with the victory the Blues secured fourth place in the Western Conference. The opponent for the Hawks in the opening round will be the Minnesota Wild.

Every big name player was out of the Chicago lineup with the exception of Brent Seabrook. A few worker bees like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg were also given a well-deserved night off. So Joel Quenneville did what he could to avoid major injuries and to make sure his club will be rested for a long Stanley Cup run.

Saturday's Blackhawk lineup featured seven players called up from Rockford and recently signed center Drew LeBlanc. Carter Hutton got the start in goal and did an adequate job. Really all of the young players gave a good accounting of themselves.

Hard luck forward Ben Smith notched the only Hawks goal which broke up the shutout in the third period. Jeremy Morin and Jimmy Hayes were credited with the assists. Rookie defenseman Ryan Stanton had two blocked shots and played a nice game finishing a +1.

The focus now will be getting past the Minnesota Wild in Round 1 of the playoffs.

In discussions with some that follow the Blackhawks closely there were scattered opinions as to which team would be the favorable first round opponent. My least favorite first round opponents were the Blues or the Kings.

Columbus made a valiant run but fell short of the eight spot and the Wild struggled over the final part of the season but they managed to qualify. Some felt the Blue Jackets would be a tough foe and the Wild would be a better matchup. In my view, barring a rash of injuries the Blackhawks would not lose four out of seven to any of the teams mentioned.

This season Chicago lost to Minnesota in a shootout and then recorded two regulation victories. The Blackhawks are also 6-0-3 versus the Wild in their last nine contests. Sounds good but its playoff time and regular season records have a way of not mattering very much.

What every Blackhawk fan should hope is the record the Wild has recorded over the last 10 games is indicative of how they will play in Round 1. Minnesota has a losing record of 4-5-1, while the Hawks were 7-2-1 over the same stretch.

Heading into Game 1 there are some question marks concerning the playing status of Dave Bolland and Ray Emery. My gut says both will be in the lineup but the biggest question will be how well Bolland has healed. His latest injury is thought to be a groin pull and sometimes that problem can take a long time to mend.

If Bolland can skate he will likely be centering the second line. If not it is anyone's guess who will replace him. It could be a committee of players including Michal Handzus, Kruger and maybe even Patrick Sharp. If it is Handzus, Patrick Kane and Sharp will benefit from his experience but may have to adjust their game. Playing with Handzus will likely require the speedy duo to downshift some, as big Zeus would be considered a slower skater, but he is a fine passer.

Winning this series will be more about the Blackhawks playing solid team defense and not looking for the pretty goals on offense. The Wild have surrendered 127 goals which are more than other playoff participant. Their goaltender Niklas Backstrom can be tough but he hasn't had his best season.

Most important will be for the Hawks to work the Minnesota defense down low and be able to expose their weaknesses. This will require some dump and chase hockey, not only from the third line but from everyone. If the Hawks can get the Wild defenders to turn to chase pucks they can use their speed to win those board battles.

As far as special teams the Wild have slightly better power play. The Chicago penalty killing unit ranks third in the league while Minnesota comes in at 18th.

The Wild will make the Blackhawks work hard for wins. They will take away space and try to frustrate the Hawk forwards. The Chicago defensemen should expect to get hit hard and often in this series and all to follow.

If the Wild can't knock the Hawks off their game this series could be over sooner than later. The Blackhawks will have to be sharp and avoid trying to do too much in front of the home crowd. If they can sweep the opening two games at the United Center this could be a short series although the Wild can play the Hawks close at home.

This is not to say the Wild can't come away with an upset.

The Hawks do have young players expected to make significant contributions who have little or no playoff experience. Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw have played well all season and hopefully the added playoff pressure won't have an adverse affect.

The game is not played on paper but the Wild have had an up and down year and did not play well down the stretch. It will be up to the Blackhawks to not bolster their confidence by playing poorly in the opening two games.

This will be the first time since the 2007-2008 campaign the Wild will be in the playoffs. Their owner Craig Leipold broke the bank this past summer signing top free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to $98 million contracts.

There won't be many in Nashville rooting for Leipold who formerly owned the Predators. Suter was a big part of the Predator lineup and it is ironic he ends playing for Leipold in Minnesota.

Many around the NHL must feel the same way about Leipold. Before the lockout he seemed to be a voice of reason concerning escalating player salaries. Then as soon as the opportunity presented itself he signed both Parise and Suter to 13 year, mega contracts.

This series shouldn't be about the Wild and their stars.

Quenneville uses the phrase to play with a purpose and I often write about playing effective hockey. It will be up to the Blackhawks to bring the same sound defensive structure as they have this year when the playoffs start on Tuesday.

There is no need for highlight reel goals but there is a need for sound team defense which has been a Blackhawks hallmark this season. If the Hawks play a simple game they have the talent to defeat the Wild and move beyond the first round.

If so, it will be the first time in three years and Blackhawk fans are hungry for another Stanley Cup run. 

I will be back on Wednesday and you can follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia.

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