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Blackhawks Buzz: Healthy Wild team first test upon return

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


Tuesday night marks the second meeting of the season between the Blackhawks and Wild, with both teams sitting in the middle of the pack in the Central Division and Minnesota currently holding onto the second wild card spot in the West. Both teams squandered multi-goal leads in their previous games: Chicago dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to Los Angeles, while Minnesota let a three-goal lead slip in a 4-3 overtime loss to the division-leading Dallas Stars. The Wild didn't fare well in November, going 4-5-2, spending much of the month without the services of power winger Zach Parise, forward Justin Fontaine and defenseman Marco Scandella (who could return tomorrow). With depth restored to their forward corps, the Wild will look to execute their aggressive forecheck and test the Blackhawks upon their return to the United Center.


Despite the late letdown in L.A., Chicago can consider their Circus Trip a success after securing eight of a possible 12 points and gaining some ground in the Central. Patrick Kane's record-setting point streak—now at 19 games and counting—kept the offense running throughout the trip, and Duncan Keith found his stride after returning from a knee injury. However, the underlying numbers were a bit concerning: In six tilts, the Blackhawks were the better possession team (measured by even-strength shot attempt percentages) just twice, in Vancouver and San Jose, and in fact put in their worst performance of the season on Saturday against the Kings (36.5%). Returning to Chicago should help, as the Blackhawks have been one of the strongest teams in the league in front of their own fans, and with nine home contests in December, the opportunity is there to continue making their way up the standings.


Versatile winger Thomas Vanek has been moved up and down the Wild's lineup all season, adding a scoring touch to the bottom six or providing primary offense as needed. Slotting in for Parise, Vanek compiled five goals and two assists while seeing a steep jump in ice time, and the 31-year-old posted a goal and an assist on Saturday against Dallas. Vanek ranks third on the team with 19 points (10G, 9A) in 22 games this season, including 13 at even strength, and sits in second with 53 shots on goal. With Vanek now on the third line with Fontaine and Charlie Coyle, the Wild have three forward trios capable of bringing both physicality and skill to the table.


While Kane has been Chicago's engine up front, the Blackhawks have benefited greatly from Keith's return to form. The 2015 Conn Smythe winner collected three goals and three assists during the six-game road trip, including points in each of his last three outings, and overall he has eight points in eight games since his return from injury. Keith's return has allowed him to pair up once more with Niklas Hjalmarsson to form a shutdown pairing, but Keith's ability to get involved in the offensive zone action and draw defenders to him also opens up the ice, as evidenced by the amount of time and space that Hjalmarsson had leading up to his long-range goal in L.A. on Saturday.


As always, Ryan Suter has done it all for the Wild this season: offense, defense, special teams. The veteran defenseman has collected a team-high 17 assists and shares the team lead with 20 points, all while skating a league-high 28:01 per game. While he's been skating alongside Jared Spurgeon for most of the season, on Tuesday Suter could be back in a more familiar spot due to some defensive shuffling by Head Coach Mike Yeo in response to the team's three-game winless streak. As of Monday's practice, Suter was paired back up with Jonas Brodin—the two played together during Brodin's first three NHL seasons, and Yeo could be hoping that the reunion can provide more stability on the back end as the Wild try to shut down Chicago's dynamic offense.

Chicago and Minnesota's first encounter at the end of October was a rollercoaster 5-4 win for the Wild, featuring multiple lead changes and untimely goals given up by the Blackhawks, something they'll need to avoid on Tuesday in order to make their triumphant return to the United Center. After a tumultuous November, the Wild are basically healthy again, but some recent disorganized efforts could have them playing a bit more cautiously in their own end. Between three scoring lines and a mobile defense, Minnesota is capable of giving opponents all they can handle, so the Blackhawks can help out their goaltender—likely Corey Crawford—by exiting their own zone cleanly and not allowing the Wild to find their rhythm.

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