Let me start off by saying I honestly didn’t expect the Minnesota Wild to come out on top of the mighty Chicago Blackhawks last night. It may have been the first game in over a month for top line left winger Zach Parise, but it was the second line that put the Wild on the scoreboard first.
The Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville connection was once again alive and kicking, giving Minnesota a 1-0 lead 8:08 into the game on the team’s first shot of the night and Pominville’s team leading 20th goal of the year. Pominville entered the zone on the right wing on a three-on-two, finding Dany Heatley on his left as Granlund charged towards the net. Heatley passed the puck to Granlund who then made one of his trademark unearthly dishes to Pominville who deposited the puck in the wide open net.
Minnesota’s shutdown line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine did an excellent job of holding the Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa line at bay, but Cooke’s goal at 15:31 of the opening period would be the eventual game-winner. The goal was the result of some hard work from Brodziak and especially rookie Fontaine, who busted his tail to win a foot race for the puck in the high slot, then making a one-handed pass to Cooke who put the biscuit in the basket.
It was the Darcy Kuemper show from there. As one can reasonably expect, the NHL’s team to beat wasn’t exactly close to rolling over, and the rookie netminder was forced to make 33 saves in his sixth consecutive start. Kuemper was on the verge of collecting his second career NHL shutout before Patrick Kane (of course) slapped home his 24th of the season with the extra attacker on the ice and 32 seconds to go in the game. In nine games this season, the hulking 6’5″ 205-pound netminder has notched a 5-3 record, a 2.22 goals against average, a .924 save percentage and one shutout.
Perhaps the best part of last night was knowing the Wild–now up 3-1 over the Blackhawks on the season–have officially won their regular season series with Chicago regardless of who wins the final meeting between these two teams on April 3rd.
For now, Minnesota’s record sits at 28-20-5 for 61 points and a two-way tie with the Vancouver Canucks for seventh in the Western Conference playoff race. The next closest team–the Phoenix Coyotes–sits six points back with 55, which is just one point ahead of the Dallas Stars. That’s the good news. The bad news? The Wild has a tough trio of road games coming up starting tomorrow night against San Jose (72 points, fourth in the West), Anaheim (81 points, first in the West) and Colorado (67 points, fifth in the West).
The fourth and final game of the road trip isn’t exactly going to be a cake walk, either. Calgary (41 points, 13th in the West) may not be a playoff contender, but they’ve been able to steal a few games from contenders like Chicago, Phoenix, Colorado and St. Louis this year. If Minnesota writes off the Flames, it could be a tough game.
Last night was a huge step forward for the Wild. Chicago may not be the top ranked team in the NHL this season, but there’s no question it is still the team to beat. If Minnesota can translate their success against the ‘Hawks into more good efforts against the West’s elite, the team should have no problem ending the trip with more points won than lost.