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Updated: May 2nd, 2014 2:04pm
Zulgad: This time Wild can be expected to put up a fight vs. Chicago

Zulgad: This time Wild can be expected to put up a fight vs. Chicago

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- After a day to reflect and embrace the excitement of the Wild's seven-game playoff victory over the Colorado Avalanche, attention has turned toward what promises to be an even more difficult assignment in the second round.

The Chicago Blackhawks might have finished third in the Central Division behind the Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, but don't be fooled into thinking this isn't a very good team.

The Hawks weren't as dominant start to finish as they were last season when they won the Stanley Cup, but regular-season greatness can mean nothing in the NHL.

The Blackhawks lost the opening two games of their first-round series in overtime to the Blues then swept the next four. This included overtime wins in Games 4 and 5 before a convincing 5-1 victory in Game 6.

This means that a year after cruising past the Wild in the opening round, the Blackhawks will again face Mike Yeo's team.

In 2013, the Wild narrowly avoided a late-season collapse to make the playoffs and then played a series against a superior collection from Chicago that made it seem as if big brother finally gave in and agreed to let little brother play with the older kids.

The Wild won Game 3, 3-2, in overtime but there was never a feeling Minnesota had a real chance.

That shouldn't be the case this time around.

The Blackhawks remain the better team, and the Wild's goalie carousel doesn't help matters. The difference this time is that this should feel like a real playoff series, instead of one in which the Wild appears to simply be trying to hang on for dear life.

This is encouraging news because with the Wild and Hawks are now division rivals and this could help build up some true hatred between these clubs. The Wild, and their fans, already have a much greater dislike for the Avalanche after their playoff battle.

The biggest difference for the Wild this time around might be the depth of their forward lines.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville had an easy decision to make last spring, matching No. 1 center Jonathan Toews against the line featuring Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.

Toews had only two assists in the five games, both came in the final game, but that didn't matter. What did was that Koivu and Parise combined for one point, a goal by Parise, and were a minus-13 in the series.

With Koivu and Parise neutralized, the Wild had no one else to turn to for offensive production.

Things have changed.

The Wild was able to win Game 7 on Wednesday against the Avalanche because the third line of Kyle Brodziak, Dany Heatley and Nino Niederreiter accounted for two goals in the third period and the overtime winner.

Mikael Granlund, who did not play in the postseason last year, is now the Wild's most talented center. He had two goals and three assists against the Avalanche, including the overtime winner in Game 3.

Winger Charlie Coyle is a far more confident player who no longer will be intimidated by the playoff atmosphere.

This does not mean that Koivu and Parise can afford to check out. Both of them must contribute, as they did against Colorado. Parise had three goals and seven assists, his 10 points are tied for the NHL lead, and Koivu had only one goal but added five assists.

The two forwards the Wild will need more from in this round are wingers Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson. Pominville had one goal and four assists in the opening round. He had 30 goals in the regular season and the Wild want and need more than the empty-netter that Pominville potted against the Avs.

Moulson, acquired at the trade deadline from Buffalo, had only one goal and one assist in the first seven games of this postseason. That's not enough from a top six forward.

None of this is written to say the Wild will upset the Hawks. Chicago's defense is far superior to anything Colorado put on the ice and Corey Crawford, despite the views of Blackhawks fans, can be solid in nets and has a Stanley Cup on his resume.

Chicago remains a favorite to win the Cup, just as they were a year ago. The difference is that this time the Wild should make the Blackhawks life far more difficult and that could make this series much more fun to watch.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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