Wild still can’t shake jerseys of Blackhawks
The Minnesota Wild are having the best season in franchise history. Never before have they had 92 points through 66 games. Never before have they led the Western Conference this late in the season.
Yet three points behind are the Chicago Blackhawks, who are having, well, the usual.
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“They’re a really good team,” Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “They’re beyond a really good team. They’re a great team.”
When the Wild play the Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), a main storyline will be whether the Wild can go from really good to beyond really good to maybe even great. Can they hold off the Blackhawks in the standings? Can they defeat them if they meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Can they win the Cup for the first time?
Yes, when the Wild played the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Second Round two years ago, they were supposed to have what it took to defeat the Blackhawks, finally. Not only did the Blackhawks eliminate the Wild from the playoffs for the third year in a row, they never trailed, swept them, hardly celebrated and went on to win the Cup for the third time in six years.
But much has changed.
“The teams are so different,” Chicago GM Stan Bowman said. “I mean, they have a new coach now. They have different players. We have different players. I don’t know that it really amounts to much how we did a couple years ago in the playoffs.”
Fletcher has not built his team to beat the Blackhawks specifically. He has built his team to be as strong, deep and versatile as possible to match up against anyone, including the Blackhawks.
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He brought in coach Bruce Boudreau, who is having the same regular-season success he had with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks, getting the players to buy into the system and feel good about it.
Some names are the same, like captain Mikko Koivu, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. But younger players have developed, particularly forward Mikael Granlund, and new additions have bolstered the roster, particularly center Eric Staal.
The Wild’s identity is defense and balanced scoring. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk leads the NHL in save percentage at .932. Entering play Saturday, the Wild rank second in the League in goals per game (3.30), fourth in goals against (2.38), eighth on the power play (21.2 percent) and eighth on the penalty kill (83.7).
The Chicago Blackhawks, on a three-game winning streak with a 15-3-0 record in their past 18 games, will be without forward Marian Hossa, who sustained a lower-body injury in a 2-1 win at the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. Hossa’s injury is not serious, coach Joel Quenneville said. Forward Tomas Jurco, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for a third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft on Feb. 24, is expected to play after being a healthy scratch for the past three games. “We wanted him to get comfortable, get confidence, have the puck,” Quenneville said. “He’s got some skill and we want him to be comfortable out there with the puck. I think he’s a little bit more comfortable with how we play, and we’re looking forward to getting him in a spot where he can get some ice time and make a contribution.” Jurco has no points in six games with Chicago. Goaltender Corey Crawford will start after backing up Scott Darling on Thursday. The Blackhawks lead the Minnesota Wild by three points for first place in the Central Division and Western Conference.
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Carey Price will play his 500th career game on Tuesday, and is 3-3-0 all-time against the Blackhawks.
At the other end of the ice, Corey Crawford should get the start in goal for Chicago. The Quebec-born netminder has won two of his four career starts in his hometown arena.
Tomas Plekanec will be back in action on Tuesday after having missed the last three games with an upper-body injury. He will take Michael McCarron’s spot and authentic jerseys cheap in the lineup.
On the back end, Nathan Beaulieu will be a healthy scratch against Chicago. With Nikita Nesterov still on the mend and his status being evaluated on a day-to-day basis, Brandon Davidson will get his first taste of Bell Centre action against the Blackhawks.
If Julien sticks with the rest of Sunday’s winning lineup from Edmonton, Habs newcomer Steve Ott could also make his Bell Centre debut on Tuesday. In his four games with the Canadiens since the trade deadline, the gritty forward has picked up one point and five penalty minutes.
The Blackhawks have won each of their previous two annual meetings in Montreal, while the Habs will be looking for a first home win against Chicago since January 11, 2014.