The Wild's Matt Cooke (center) is congratulated on his goal by teammates Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser as the Blackhawks' Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival skate to their bench in the first period Thursday.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Call them the standard, call them the measuring stick, the Chicago Blackhawks are the team against which the Minnesota Wild are judged.
Minnesota’s development and success is weighed against the Blackhawks, the Western Conference standard-bearer as the defending Stanley Cup champions. To get where the Wild aspire to be, they know they need to go through the Blackhawks.
"I guess you’d say measuring stick, but they’re the best team in the league and for them they’re going to see every team’s best game," Minnesota forward Zach Parise said. "And it’s pretty impressive what they’re doing even this year. But I think you learn a lot from playing them with how well they possess the puck and how well they move the puck through the neutral zone. They play a really good style of hockey."
Minnesota is playing some of its best hockey against the defending champions this year, and proving there might be something to the burgeoning rivalry.
Jason Pominville scored his fourth goal in four games against Chicago this season, tallying his 20th of the year to open the scoring. Matt Cooke added his seventh of the year and Darcy Kuemper stopped 33 of 34 shots he faced as the Wild beat the Blackhawks 2-1 on Thursday night.
Parise made his return after 14 games, and Minnesota came within 31.2 seconds of a shutout of high-scoring Chicago to win for the eighth time in the past 11 games. Patrick Kane scored his 24th goal of the year with 31.2 seconds left as the Blackhawks avoided being shutout for the 120th consecutive regular-season game.
"It’s a measuring stick," Cooke said. "You look where they are and they’re right up there at the top of our conference. It’s a potential playoff matchup for us. This hockey club has been there before and they learned from it last year, and I think that the emotional level tonight is easy because of the history from last year."
The Wild finally ended their playoff drought last season, advancing to the postseason for the first time in five years. But Minnesota was quickly ushered into the offseason with a 4-1 series loss to the top-seeded Blackhawks, being outscored 17-7 in the process.
The series loss didn’t sit well with the Wild, who were judged against Chicago’s deep and star-laden team. Seeing them this season is bringing out the best in Minnesota.
"For whatever reason, our game elevates when we play them," Parise said. "And I thought tonight, it’s a tough team, and I thought we did a good job of containing their top players. Other than Kane getting that one at the end, we did a pretty good job of neutralizing them for the most part."
Back in the same division with the Blackhawks this season, Minnesota will see Chicago five times. The Wild have won three of the first four. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks lead the Central Division with 76 points, well ahead of the Wild’s 61 points, fourth in the Central and eighth in the Western Conference.
Minnesota, in sending Chicago to only its second regulation loss in 18 games, is trying to prove the division rivalry isn’t one-sided.
"I don’t know what it says," Yeo said of taking three of four games against the Blackhawks so far this season. "I know we get geared up to play that team. I think that there’s been other teams that are kind of top teams and we don’t really know where we stand against them and because of that I think sometimes we come into a game and wait to see what’s going to happen and we react to them a little bit more.
"I think the fact that we’ve played them as much as we have, I think our guys are confident going into the game knowing we can play with them. Obviously they’re such a great team, we have so much respect for them. We haven’t taken any nights off against that hockey team, and why would you ever? They’re good in a lot of areas. I think it’s a great sign for our team and hopefully that’s the kind of game that certainly builds confidence."