Slowly but surely, the Western Conference playoff picture is taking shape, and Thursday’s game against the Minnesota Wild will have major implications for both clubs. After a winless road trip last week, the Blackhawks are currently looking up at Colorado for home-ice advantage in the first round, while the Wild took big strides toward securing a wild card berth with wins over Phoenix and Los Angeles in their last two outings. Minnesota enters the fifth and final game of the regular-season matchup in good form and should provide an important test for Chicago, who suddenly looks a bit vulnerable up front; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews—two of the team’s top three scorers—will miss the rest of the regular-season slate due to injury.
The Wild have benefited from excellent play down the stretch from their top line, including Zach Parise, who has six points (5G, 1A) in his last five games, and captain Mikko Koivu, who extended his point streak to six games (2G, 7A) with a goal and an assist in Minnesota’s 3-2 win at Los Angeles on Monday. The Blackhawks have held them at bay in their four previous meetings this season, but leading scorer Jason Pominville has collected five points (4G, 1A) against Chicago in that span. Keeping those three off the scoresheet will go a long way to claiming two points, especially with Minnesota’s supporting cast—including Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker—hobbled by injuries.
With Kane and Toews shelved for the rest of the regular season, it’s up to some young role players to help the team keep its shape. Joakim Nordstrom—who made the Blackhawks’ opening night roster—was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs and will likely play a depth role like he did for 10 games earlier in the season. Teuvo Teravainen, who made his NHL debut on March 25, will also get nudged up the depth chart, especially in offensive situations, where his vision and playmaking abilities could help the Blackhawks get on the scoresheet.
Another player who could pick up points for the Blackhawks is Andrew Shaw, who will get “quality minutes”—likely on the top 6—going forward, according to Head Coach Joel Quenneville. Increased playing time would give Shaw a prime opportunity to break out of a three-game scoreless slump, although the 22-year-old did collect 10 points (5G, 5A) in the 10 tilts before that dry spell. In his third NHL season, he’s posted a career-high 36 points (19G, 17A) in 74 games.
To say that Minnesota’s goalie depth has been challenged is an understatement—no Wild netminder has made 30 appearances this season. Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding have seen their playing time severely limited by injury and illness, respectively, and rookie Darcy Kuemper was sidelined with a lower-body injury after winning just one of his last eight starts. Enter Ilya Bryzgalov, who was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers at the trade deadline; in seven games, the Russian netminder has gone 4-0-2 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .909 save percentage, and he’s stopped 41 of 44 shots in his last two games, both wins.
In some ways, both Chicago and Minnesota enter Thursday’s tilt in similar situations: rosters ravaged by injuries, searching for consistency at a crucial time in the season. But while the Blackhawks have dropped three straight, the Wild got two big victories to bolster their playoff hopes. Minnesota’s top contributors—Pominville, Parise and Koviu—have been humming right along, and defenseman Ryan Suter is still one of the toughest to play against in the league. The Blackhawks will need to forge some chemistry between their veterans and a crop of energetic youngsters in order to break out of their skid and gain two points in their bid for home-ice advantage.