When the Minnesota Wild last visited the Chicago Blackhawks they were being swept aside as Chicago pursued their second Stanley Cup Championship in three seasons. It’s a new season and a new division with the teams ready to start a divisional rivalry. Today is the first game of a home and home pair of contests, tonight in the United Center and Monday in the Xcel Energy Center. The Backhawks are currently in second place in the Central Division with 18 points and a 6-1-3 record while the Wild are tied for third just two points back posting a record of 5-3-3. As much as I’d love to say, “throw the records out the window for this rivalry game!” I just can’t. The fact is Chicago has lost just once in regulation this season and look much like the squad that dominated the NHL last season en route to claiming Lord Stanley’s Cup. While Chicago may not have changed much, the Wild certainly have. The differences include new look lines, a lethal power play, and revamped defensive scheme. The Wild and Blackhawks will meet 5 times this season, 3 in St. Paul and 2 in Chicago. The meeting are spread out during the season with games 1 and 2 today and Monday. December 5th and January 23rd the Wild host the Blackhawks while the fifth and final meeting of the regular season is slated for April 3rd at the United Center.
Tonight’s game will be a big test for the Wild. Can they stop Chicago’s high octane offense the averages nearly three goals a game? Can they score on the Blackhawk defenders that have limited opponents to 25.9 shots and 2.50 goals per game so far this season? A question that also arises is, can Chicago score on a Wild defense that allow a league low 21.8 shots and fourth ranked 1.91 goals against per game? Minnesota is still struggling in the goal scoring category scoring two or fewer goals in 8 of 11 games this season. They are going to have to finish on scoring opportunities is they hope to pick up 2 points in Chicago.
Goal tending will be a big story line tonight with Niklas Backstrom getting the start in goal. He’s back in net due to a strain injury suffered by Harding in their last game against Carolina. Backstrom was thrust back into the net and performed well, holding the Hurricanes scoreless in the third period. His backup to night is Johan Gustaffson who has been called up from Iowa. He got the opportunity because Iowa’s Darcy Kuemper is fighting a nagging injury of his own. Backstrom hasn’t started a game since October 8th when he suffered a knee sprain. To date he has a 2.98 goals against average and an 86.7 save percentage. Those numbers are a little on the low side for Backstrom but I expect him to perform well tonight.
The Wild are also dinged up in the defense ranks with Keith Ballard and Jonas Brodin out of action. Ballard has begoun skating and hope to return to the lineup soon. Brodin has been out of action since taking a puck to the face and breaking his cheekbone. The team says he may begin skating next week with a full cage on his helmet. Tonight look for the defensive pairings to be; Jared Spurgeon with Ryan Suter, Mathew Dumba skating with Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser paired with Marco Scandella. With the exception of Suter it’s a rather young group of defensemen. They are going to have to be careful about jumping into the offense tonight and choose their rushes wisely or they will see a Blackhawks team flying back up the ice past them into the offensive zone on an odd-man rush. Mistake will end up in the Wild’s net tonight if there are any major defensive break downs.
The forward lines for today’s game will look pretty much the same as the third period of the game on Thursday. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu will be skating with Justin Fontaine. This trio must produce if the Wild hope to win. The second line is comprised of Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. Scoring from the Wild’s second ine has been in short supply this season, whatever the makeup of that line has been. Tonight would be an opportune time for some goals from line #2. The third line has Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley. Heatley finally broke into the goal scoring column with an empty netter against Carolina. Maybe that will be the one that opens the floodgates to the 30-goal season Heatley talked about in preseason. The fourth line grinders will one again be Zenon Konopka. Torrey Mitchell and Stephane Veilleux. This group will have their hands full with a talented and quick moving Chicago team. The Wild are going to have to score early and force the Blackhawks to play from behind, taking risks the Wild can capitalize on. If Minnesota falls behind by 2 goals or more this game will be over in a hurry. Chicago has not been blowing out opponents as of late. Four of their last five games have been decided in overtime or a shootout. Another critical area for the Wild will be the power play versus the penalty kill. Both teams have top ten ranked power plays. The Wild are converting 26.8% compared to the Blackhawks 21.0% When it come to the penalty kill the Wild are struggling, killing of just 75% of penalties. Chicago however is the worst in the league with a pk rate of just 71%. I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that the team who wins the power play penalty kill battle will win the game. The Wild are the best in the league when it come to not allowing even strength goals. Just 5 goals have come against Minnesota in five on five situations.
Tonight is a very winnable game for the Wild if they play with in their system and limit mistakes and penalties. The game is being broadcast on FOX Sports Network (FSN) with puck drop slated for 7pm. Wild vs Blackhawks tickets are still available if you’re going to be in Chicago as well. I’ll be back after the game with a review and analysis. Tonight can be a statement game for the Wild early in this 2013-14 season. I just want it to be a good statement. Until next time this is Scott Drain chanting, “Let’s Go Wild!!”