Wild have improved, but a focused Blackhawks should advance - MyFoxAustin.com | KTBC Fox 7 | News, Weather, Sports

Wild have improved, but a focused Blackhawks should advance

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

The Chicago Blackhawks will continue their march toward winning another Stanley Cup by taking on the Minnesota Wild Friday night. The Hawks are a prohibitive favorite and should defeat the Wild. Sometimes big favorites don’t come through, as was the case concerning the Blackhawks winning the Central Division.

In Round 2 the biggest enemy of the Blackhawks could be themselves. As long as the Hawks don’t ease into this series, they should prevail. There is no substitute for winning experience. The Hawks have five times as many playoff wins since 2010 as Minnesota has recorded in the last decade.

In the opening round in the Western Conference home teams lost Game 7. The two home teams that lost Game 7 also jumped out to a 2-0 series lead. Home ice doesn’t guarantee a series win and neither does getting off to a good start. That has been the case but in this series the opening two games should be very important.

The Hawks want this series to be a return to reality for the Wild, winning both Games 1 and 2 could make a strong point. The Wild just played a very emotional series and knocked off a number one seed. It may be difficult for Minnesota to ramp up the emotions so soon - and by the time they do, the Hawks could be in control. On the other hand, if the Blackhawks overlook the Wild they could make things much more difficult.

Joel Quenneville will need his team to play better than they did last season when they faced Minnesota in the first round. The Hawks bench boss has a challenge as his club hasn’t had contributions from all four lines for much of this season. There is another level for the Blackhawks to reach and if they do, even though the Wild have improved they won’t succeed.

This season Chicago’s fourth line has been consistent but the third line has been an issue. Versus St. Louis, players from the fourth line were moved up, like Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger. That was fine against the Blues as the Hawks got by rolling only three lines. That might be able to work against the Wild too, although Quenneville would like to better utilize all four lines. To win another Stanley Cup the Hawks will need to play with more than three lines.

Many times the road to the Cup for the potential champion will mean at least one short series. The Hawks come into Round 2 healthy and rested. They can also benefit from short travel between cities. The question is will they be able to put Minnesota away in no more than five games like last season?

This isn’t the same bewildered group from Minnesota the Blackhawks faced last year. As long as they keep that in mind, and remember the Wild captured seven of 10 points in the season series, the Hawks should stay dialed in.

Corey Crawford led the turnaround versus the Blues and he should be able to outplay either Darcy Kuemper or Ilya Bryzgalov. If Crawford keeps playing at a high level and the Chicago special teams perform well, the Wild will be in trouble.

Although the Blackhawks penalty killers have been great, Quenneville will be looking for more discipline. The Hawks will want to stay out of the penalty box and for this series to be played five on five. They will also look to get their power play going.

Bovada Sportsbook has the Blackhawks a big favorite (-$320) to win the series. Minnesota shouldn’t win and won’t as long the Blackhawks perform the way they did in Games 5 and 6 versus the Blues.

Last year, the Wild were a banged up group and were not as good as this year’s version. On Wednesday, Kuemper was forced to leave Game 7 versus Colorado and his status for Friday night’s opener is not known. Kuemper has a had a good season and has been more consistent than Bryzgalov.

Minnesota isn’t an offensive juggernaut but they can score with more than one line. The Wild can be frustrating to play against when they have the lead. They did a good job of limiting shots against in the Colorado series.

Minnesota could pose a difficult challenge, but as long as the Blackhawks stay focused their best will be too much for the Wild.

Al’s Shots

After David Backes looked like he was knocked for a loop by Brent Seabrook, I reported he did not sustain a concussion. The source was very credible although at first I couldn’t help but think Backes had to suffer a concussion. When it was substantiated he did fly to Chicago with the team, then I was more confident the story was in fact accurate. Most times concussed players don’t fly.

Bringing this up now is not for the purpose of taking credit for having a story. Writing rumors is like giving friends stock tips, only the losers are remembered.

As was substantiated by a report in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, Backes didn’t have a concussion but he did have a neck issue. My source said exactly that, it was more of a whiplash type of injury. Backes was also hit by an Alexander Steen shot late in the season and suffered a broken toe, which he played with in the playoffs.

The reason for bringing up Backes non-concussion is rather to discuss the unpredictable nature of the NHL’s concussion protocol.

I wrote in the past, the process is flawed.

My belief is independent doctors should run the test not a team physician. The NFL has implemented that protocol but it is more difficult to do in the NHL.

There are more games in a hockey season, the logistics and expense make it difficult to have the same group of league sanctioned doctors perform the tests. At least that is what I have been told by league sources in the past, and hopefully someday soon things will change.

It has been reported players admit to “gaming” the concussion test. They have been able to provide answers the team doctor is looking for so they could pass the test.

Having a group of doctors who perform the test in the same exact way and don’t have a close relationship with players would be better. That’s not to say team physicians have been unethical but in my opinion it is too easy for them to be fooled. I can’t see how a player being very familiar with the doctor doing the test is in the best interest of either party.

Also, sending a player to the “dark room” for an evaluation after sustaining a head shot is also an inconsistent process.

Some players immediately leave the ice and never return to the game. But many times a player who appears woozy goes off but stays on the bench and after a few minutes returns to play.

I’m not sure why some players after sustaining a big hit never go down to the dark room while others do the opposite. Who decides if they need time to be evaluated? If it is the player, than the process is spoiled from the start.

The NHL needs to take a closer look at concussion testing. As it stands today the protocol appears to be inconsistently enforced and the evaluation process is suspect.

Western Conference Round 1

The Blues and Sharks have had trouble winning in the playoffs and that trend held true this season.

After blowing a 3-0 series lead, one has to wonder if Sharks GM Doug Wilson survives and the same is true for head coach Todd McLellan. If McLellan is axed, I don’t think he will be out of work for very long.

Word I hear out of St. Louis is there could be changes coming on the Blues coaching staff. Ken Hitchcock figures to be safe but his assistants could be different next season. GM Doug Armstrong may need to deflect some blame and firing an assistant or two could do the trick for now.

Hitchcock is thought of in the same way as Mike Keenan. He can get a club turned around but has a limited shelf life. Hitchcock is a top coach but he is demanding, time will tell how long he has left in St. Louis.

My guess is the Blues will not pursue Ryan Miller and will go after a goal scorer. Top UFA forwards Thomas Vanek or Paul Stastny could be on their target list.

Colorado is a club on the upswing but they spit the bit versus the Wild. The Av’s are young and looked their age in losing Game 7.

During the season I was impressed with the Av’s defensive structure but in Game 7 the Wild had their way.

Minnesota isn’t, but the Kings and Ducks are playoff tested as are the Blackhawks.

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

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