Preview: Wild vs. Blackhawks
SAINT PAUL, Minn. — The Chicago Blackhawks are clearly the playoff nemesis for the Minnesota Wild.
In three of the last four campaigns — 2013, 2014 and 2015 — the Blackhawks have ended Minnesota’s season with a playoff series win.
In the regular season, at least lately, it’s the opposite as the Wild own an 8-0-1 mark versus the Blackhawks in the teams’ last nine meetings.
With Minnesota currently seven points ahead of Chicago (with a game in hand) in the race for the best record in the Western Conference, there is plenty at stake when the teams meet at Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday.
“They’ve had an amazing run. Give them credit. Tough building to go into,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville on Sunday, after his team won 5-1 in Buffalo. Less than two weeks ago, during the Blackhawks’ most recent trip to Minnesota, Chicago won in overtime on a power play goal.
“I know we played pretty well last time and we’re going to have to be even better going into this game,” Quenneville said. “We’d like to be in the same area code going into the stretch run, so hopefully we can try to close the gap.”
If closing the gap includes adding some newcomers to the roster, with the NHL’s March 1 trade deadline barely a week away, the coach knows Chicago general manager Stan Bowman faces a real challenge in terms of salaries and team chemistry.
“I think Stan’s done a great job this time of year trying to do everything he can to make us better in a tight situation,” Quenneville said. “Knowing there’s a lot of obstacles and hurdles to try to stay under the cap and try to make us better at the same time.”
Minnesota has avoided a midseason swoon, and has gotten at least a point in 18 of 22 games since New Year’s Day. That puts the Wild solidly in the Western Conference lead on Feb. 21. Previously, the latest the team had led the conference was on Dec. 17, 2011, so things are quite different under first-year coach Bruce Boudreau.
One thing that’s different is the line chart, which changes often as Boudreau likes to inject some variety into his team’s offensive makeup — a tactic he believes will pay off come playoff time.
“It allows you to know you can put guys into different spots when needed and you’re still not going to worry about it,” Boudreau said on Monday, after the Wild practiced on the University of Minnesota campus.
“The other thing is guys get to learn how to play with each guy and it’s not a shock to them all of a sudden. . . . We’re pretty good with the versatility all over the place. I think that will help.”
As for the immediate future, Boudreau said he’s not concerned that his team, which has five days off after the Blackhawks’ game, will be mentally checked out on Tuesday.
“We’re playing Chicago, the team that’s trying to catch us,” he said. “Anything less than playing your hardest will not be successful.”