Myers: Travel schedule may be only good news for Wild in playoffs
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- If you like hockey and you like drama, the month of April has been near-perfect if you follow the Minnesota Wild.
They needed two wins in their final four games. They lost arguably the easiest of the two -- home games versus downtrodden Calgary and Edmonton teams -- but managed to win nail-biters against the defending Stanley Cup champs from Los Angeles and on the road versus Colorado.
When all of the smoke cleared late Saturday night, the Wild sat tied with Columbus for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Thanks to the tiebreakers, though, Mike Yeo's team is heading to the playoffs, and the man he replaced (Todd Richards) is done for the season.
The Wild feasibly could've backed into the playoffs with a Blue Jackets loss, but Columbus scored three goals late to beat Nashville, meaning Minnesota's 3-1 victory in Colorado was a true must-win.
"We had no idea what Columbus was doing," said Wild forward Zach Parise, who scored his team-leading 18th goal on Saturday. "You don't want to rely on someone else, so we weren't too concerned about it. We really liked the way we played the first period and we were able to close it out."
The Wild flew home from Denver late Saturday, and Sunday was a true day of rest, featuring no practice and no media availability.
The travel schedule in the opening round will be less grueling as well, as the Wild will face their closest conference neighbors, the Chicago Blackhawks. Game 1 is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the United Center on Chicago's west side.
With the Chicago Bulls scheduled for a home playoff game against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, Game 2 of the hockey series will be at 8:30 on Friday night and Game 3, in Minnesota, at 2 p.m. Sunday. Most important, the games will all be played in the Central Time Zone versus an opponent that's an hour away by air.
That's the good news. In fact, the travel schedule may be the only good news for the Wild in this daunting best-of-seven matchup.
Chicago handily won the Presidents' Trophy, given to the NHL team with the best regular season record. The Blackhawks all but wrapped it up in March after starting the season an amazing 21-0-3. Just for good measure, the Hawks went 10-3-2 in April, losing on Saturday night in St. Louis only after leaving nine regulars home in Chicago to rest up for the playoffs.
What the Hawks have in abundance - and what the Wild so clearly lack, especially with offensive prospects like Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville out of the lineup - is depth, both on offense and in goal. The Blackhawks have seven players with nine or more goals this season, and two of them (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) have more than 20.
The Wild have four players with nine or more goals, and two of them (Heatley and Pominville) are either out for the season or questionable for the playoffs. Where Chicago has ridden two very good goalies, Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, all season, the Wild have been forced to play -- and maybe over-play -- Niklas Backstrom to the point where he struggled in some of the biggest games of the season late in April.
Still, Minnesota fans with a sense of history welcome the matchup with the team a generation of North Stars fans grew up hating. And while Chicago Stadium is a parking lot and Met Center is an IKEA store, memories of the great playoff meetings between Minnesota and Chicago in the 1980s and early 1990s live on for many.
The Wild and Blackhawks have never met in the postseason, but Chicago's last playoff series with a Minnesota team ended badly for the Illinoisans.
The Presidents' Trophy last went to the Blackhawks 1991, when a loaded Chicago team charged into the playoffs to face the eighth-seeded North Stars in round one. The North Stars shocked the hockey world, taking out the mighty Hawks in six games and advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they fell to the Penguins in six games.
Against this Blackhawks team, which has seemed all but invincible this season, it will take a few lines of offense and a hot goalie for the Wild to survive in this series. Whether they can find either is one question that will begin to be answered on Tuesday night in Chicago.