By: Craig Schroepfer
The thought going into this series was that the Minnesota Wild finally had enough depth on their roster to compete with, and beat, the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs.
Instead it was the Blackhawks showing the Wild that they still have a long way to go.
Chicago won game 4 by a score of 4 – 3, sweeping the best of seven series four games to none.
From the moment Brandon Saad scored at 1:15 into game 1, the Wild were chasing the Blackhawks. Minnesota briefly caught up with Chicago in the second period of game 1, tying the game 3 – 3. But once Dubnyk let in the fourth goal of that game, the Blackhawks had all the momentum for the rest of the series.
"You fall behind each and every game against a team like the Blackhawks, you just can't do that." Mikko Koivu said. "That's something we need to learn from as a team. If you are chasing the game all the time it's going to catch up with you."
One reason why Chicago was successful in this series is their best players came through time and time again.
Patrick Kane led all Blackhawk scorers in the series with five points (4G, 1A). Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp each added a goal in the series for Chicago while Duncan Keith had three assists for them.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's best players couldn't match what Chicago did.
Zach Parise had a goal and two assists in the series but was relatively quiet by his standards. Ryan Suter had a poor series highlighted by a turnover that led to the first Chicago goal in game 2.
Jason Pominville had trouble finding the net whenever he shot the puck. Thomas Vanek continued his Jekyll and Hyde season, disappearing after playing a strong game 1 and Mikko Koivu had trouble winning face-offs against Toews the entire series.
In net, Corey Crawford looked like he did when he won the Stanley Cup back in 2013. Granted the Wild didn't create a lot of traffic in front of him to set up scoring chances. Whenever Minnesota shot the puck it seemed to hit a Blackhawk player in the shooting lane instead of the goaltender.
On the other end of the ice, Devan Dubnyk looked ordinary for the first time all year. Dubnyk failed to pick up the puck that led to the game winning goal in game 1. In game 3 Kane was able to put the puck between Dubnyk's legs for the only goal of that game.
In game 4, Seabrook's shot deflected off the shin of Marco Scandella and just over Dubnyk's glove for the first goal of the game. The second goal came when Andrew Shaw found himself in front of Dubnyk near the crease and pushed the puck between his legs. Those goals are the type of saves the Wild needed Dubnyk to make to have a chance to win this series.
When you look at both rosters, Chicago's is much stronger from top to bottom. If you had to pick the ten best players from each roster only two, maybe three Wild players would make the list.
As a result this series ended up being between a team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs against a team that is still trying to figure out how to win in the post-season.
"We played a good team." Pominville said. "Their detail to the game is very impressive from their top to bottom players. They pay attention, they defend hard and there's a reason why they've had a lot of success."
What should have been a year where the Wild took the next step forward ended up being a giant step back. In 2013, Minnesota looked like they didn't belong on the same ice as Chicago. In 2014, the Wild gave the Blackhawks everything they could handle before bowing out in six games. This year, Minnesota wasn't even a threat to Chicago in this series.
"There's a lot to learn from this series." Coach Mike Yeo said after the game. "I think maybe we went in with too many expectations instead of staying within the process a little bit more. That led to a lot of the frustration and getting away from our game. It's a learning experience that's for sure."
With the series win, Chicago will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the fifth time in the last seven series. For Minnesota, this series shows how far they have yet to go in becoming an elite NHL team.
GM Chuck Fletcher will make some tweaks to the roster this summer but a complete overhaul isn't expected. Minnesota still has a good core of players to build around.
Whatever moves Fletcher does make this off-season should be made with the Blackhawks in mind. Under the current playoff format there is a good chance Minnesota and Chicago will face each other as long as both teams qualify for the post-season.
And until Minnesota figures out a way to close the gap on Chicago, the results will stay the same.
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