1. GOING WILD
After snapping their four-game losing streak with a 4-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, the Blackhawks have two tough divisional tilts lined up, beginning Sunday against Minnesota. The Wild have won all three matchups between the two sides so far this season, including a big 6-1 victory in the Stadium Series game on Feb. 21, but none of the games have followed a strict pattern, so Sunday's contest could be a wide-open affair or a tight-checking grind, or a little bit of both. The one thing Chicago can be sure of is that the Wild will play with structure in the neutral zone, a calling card that has not changed despite a coaching change in mid-February. Minnesota logged a 3-2 shootout win over Carolina on Saturday afternoon and are now just one point behind Colorado for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
2. CONNECT FOUR
One of the best signs for Chicago in Friday's win was the distribution of goal-scoring after Head Coach Joel Quenneville made one adjustment midway through the game, swapping Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane on the right wing. Late in the period, the Blackhawks got two goals in quick succession from the new lines, as Kane and Hossa scored 26 seconds apart. Then in the third period, the top trio cycled their way to a goal by former Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd, before Tomas Fleischmann put a bow on the win. In fact, it was the Blackhawks' third line—Fleischmann, Teuvo Teravainen and Dale Weise—that provided consistent pressure throughout that game, ending with a +11 shot attempt differential in around 8 EV minutes together (via corsica.hockey). While Quenneville may not stick with that configuration on Sunday against Minnesota, the emphasis remains on building confidence through rolling four lines that can all produce scoring chances.
3. DEPTH CHARGE
While Minnesota has gotten great production from their top six over the last week, what makes them dangerous is the depth duo of Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter; currently they're skating with David Jones, who scored on Saturday, but they've also spent time with the injured Jason Pominville. Against Carolina, the trio posted a +12 shot differential at EV, best on the team (via corsica.hockey). Minnesota's third line presents a potent mix of speed in transition and a physical forecheck, and they've been productive lately. Haula notched an assist against Carolina to extend his point streak to four games (1G, 3A), and the 24-year-old has a career-best 27 points in 65 games this season, including four points in three outings against Chicago. Niederreiter is also on a four-game point streak (3G, 2A) after posting a helper on Saturday, which established a career best with 38 points in 71 games.
4. SUT YOURSELF
Over the last few seasons, the Wild have prided themselves on having one of the deeper blue lines in the league—a crew of puck-movers who have size and mobility on all three pairings. While younger defensemen including Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba have made their mark, it's the veteran presence of Ryan Suter that sets the tone for the group. The 31-year-old was on the ice for a whopping 29:58 on Saturday, but it's nothing new for a player who averages nearly 29 minutes per game, second overall in the NHL and tops on the Wild for each of the four seasons since his arrival as a free agent in 2012. Suter recently set a franchise record for single-season assists by a defenseman with his 38th of the campaign on March 17 in New Jersey, and the Blackhawks can expect to see a lot of him on Sunday, in all situations.
5. HELPING HANDS
While both teams find themselves in a playoff positioning free-for-all—and indeed, they may yet face each other for a fourth straight year in the postseason—the Blackhawks and Wild organizations have found time to join forces for a good cause. Matt Olson, a 20-year-old hockey player who hails from Minnesota but played for the Chicago Cougars, suffered a severe spinal cord injury on Feb. 21 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. In order to support the Olson family with medical costs, the teams are auctioning off one-of-a-kind fan experiences on both teams' websites beginning at noon on Feb. 20 and are promoting donations via Olson's Go Fund Me page. Fans are encouraged to use the #MO3 hashtag on social media in order to raise awareness throughout the fan bases of both teams as well as the hockey community at large. Click here for more information about the online auction and other ways to support the cause.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks are getting close to clinching a playoff berth, but with the Central Division as packed as it is, they're also another losing streak away from dropping into a wild card slot, especially with how well the three teams behind them are playing. The Wild are in that group, and after a shootout game on Saturday they'll likely simplify their game for the road. Minnesota has relied on scoring by committee this season, with 10 players hitting double digits, and they're one of the few teams in the conference that can match up with the Blackhawks in terms of forward depth (when healthy), so Sunday's game will come down to winning individual battles and pushing the pace.