1. INTO THE WILD
Sunday’s Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium might be old hat for the Blackhawks, who are about to take part in their fourth outdoor marquee event—a league high—since 2009, but for most of the Wild roster, it will be a novel experience. For the hosts, the tilt represents an opportunity to continue closing the distance in the Central Division, where they trail Colorado and Nashville by just two points for a wild card berth. After dismissing former head coach Mike Yeo last weekend, the Wild have been a team on the rebound, scoring five goals in each of their last three contests, the first time in franchise history they’ve enjoyed that kind of goal production. The Blackhawks have lit the lamp 12 times in their last two outings—they hung seven on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday before tallying five at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Minnesota has won both previous matchups this season, 5-4 on Oct. 30 and 2-1 on Dec. 1.
2. BREAD ARMY
Pacing the Blackhawks in their 5-3 win over the Rangers on Wednesday was Artemi Panarin, who posted his first NHL hat trick with two power-play tallies and an empty-netter. He became the first Blackhawks rookie to net three goals in a game since Tyler Arnason in the 2002-03 season and the 15th in franchise history to reach 20 goals in his inaugural campaign; he’s the seventh rookie in the NHL to register a hat trick in 2015-16. Panarin continues to pace first-year players with 22 goals, 35 assists and 57 points, which rank sixth in the league. Unlike many of his teammates, the 24-year-old has never skated in a North American outdoor game, but given the way his line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov has played all season, it’s not unreasonable to expect the trio to lead the way in the elements on Sunday.
3. DEEP CUTS
The Wild have won their first three games under interim head coach John Torchetti, who was an assistant coach on the Blackhawks’ 2010 championship team. Minnesota’s third line of Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jason Pominville has ignited over that span, combining for four goals and six assists. It’s a line that has a little bit of everything—speed, size and finish—and they’ve been the spark plug for Minnesota’s offense, which has found life (albeit facing three of the league’s most porous defenses in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton). The Wild need their depth to come through for the rest of the season if they are to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and getting steady production from their second and third lines is a good start.
4. FOLLOW THE LEADERS
For success in the franchise’s first outdoor game, the Wild will look to their leaders: namely, left wing and Minneapolis native Zach Parise, captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Ryan Suter. Parise has just one goal in 11 games dating back to Jan. 23, but he’s compiled eight points over his last seven games. Koivu, his frequent linemate, has seven points (2G, 5A) in his last six games, and both veterans continue to be all-situations contributors, ranking one-two in ice time among team forwards at even strength and on the power play. Defenseman Ryan Suter has anchored Minnesota’s blue line for the last three years, averaging over 27 minutes since 2012-13 and leading the league for three straight seasons. Suter leads the Wild with 31 helpers and ranks second with 38 points this season, and Minnesota will need him to be a force against Chicago’s top players on Sunday.
5. POWER SURGE
Both teams can credit their power-play units for stepping up over the last week. The Blackhawks have tallied seven times with the man advantage in their two games, while Minnesota has collected at least one power-play goal in eight of their last nine contests, including a 4-of-10 stretch during their three-game win streak. The Blackhawks will need to limit their trips to the penalty box, however, as they’ve also allowed seven power-play goals over the last five games. The Wild, who always play a hard and physical—but clean—game, rank third in the league with a +32 penalty differential (Chicago is not far behind at +28), led by winger Charlie Coyle, who shares fifth with 24 penalties drawn this season. The 23-year-old shares the team lead with 18 goals this season and has scored in each of the last three tilts.
THE FINAL WORD
While the elements will certainly play a part in the proceedings on Sunday, the Blackhawks and Wild know that establishing their own game will be key to claiming two important points in the Central. Minnesota has regained some confidence under Torchetti, showcasing their trademark speedy, strong forecheck that has caused Chicago problems in the past, so the Blackhawks can’t let themselves be penned in at their own end, no matter how well Corey Crawford is playing. Although both teams are seemingly scoring at will these days, games between Chicago and Minnesota are usually tightly fought affairs, and warmer, sunnier conditions could affect the ice, so the Blackhawks will need to exercise smart puck management and rely on their wealth of experience in the great outdoors to give them an edge.