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At the Rink: Wild at Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com

CHICAGO -- The biggest question for the Chicago Blackhawks going into a game against the Minnesota Wild at United Center on Sunday is simple.

How much gas do they have left to play their fifth game in eight days?

After defeating the Wild on Thursday and losing at the Edmonton Oilers on Friday to split a road back-to-back set, the Blackhawks are intent going into a four-day stretch without a game feeling good.

"The past three or four days have been tough on us, with the lack of sleep and traveling and all that, but coming into tonight we need to be ready," left wing Bryan Bickell said after the morning skate. "[The Wild had] a tough loss [Saturday], so they're in the same situation we are. We're going to bounce back and hopefully play good hockey."

If they achieve that goal for the entire game, it will be the first time in the past couple weeks they've managed to do it. Chicago is second in the Central Division and lost more ground Saturday to the first-place Nashville Predators, who defeated the Wild. The St. Louis Blues, who currently sit third, pulled within a point of the Blackhawks by defeating the Carolina Hurricanes.

The last thing the Blackhawks need is to lose to the Wild on Sunday and wait until Friday for another chance to gain points. They are 4-4-0 in their past eight games and just haven't played up to their own high standards since defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs at home Dec. 21.

"It's been pretty tough and I think everybody feels the same here in the locker room," defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "We're looking at a big performance [tonight], hopefully. We know the schedule. We have four days without a game after this one, so we're just going to find a way to squeeze out all the energy we have left for this game."

Minnesota, which opted not to skate Sunday, is also looking to turn things around. Despite outshooting its past two opponents by sizable margins, including a 44-20 differential in a 4-2 loss to the Blackhawks, they've lost each game. They've dropped to last in the Central, are 2-5-3 in the past 10 games, and 5-8-4 since the start of December.

The Wild should be just as hungry for a win.

"You've got to take what you get," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "No matter if it's a back-to-back game or finishing a busy segment like we're in right now; that's where it's at. Being consistent, being professional and doing the right things, which enhances your team's chances, is all we look for [from players]. This is going to be a game where you've got to do the right things."

Getting off to a better start is among that list of "right things," after being outscored by a combined 16-7 margin in the first periods of their past eight games. That stretch includes six straight games in which they allowed the first goal.

"We know we can be better," Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya said. "We had a couple of bad starts and were trailing in some games, where you put yourself in that position and it's not ideal. In this day and age, if you can get a jump on a team early in games, usually that's a little bit more beneficial. We talk about these things, obviously. We know there's another level. Hard work, really, is what you can do. It's not too much to think about."

Goalie Corey Crawford will start for the Blackhawks. Niklas Backstrom, who is 0-2-0 with a 3.56 goals-against average and .877 save percentage in the first two games against Chicago, will start for the Wild.

Here are the projected lineups:

WILD

Jason Zucker - Mikko Koivu - Jason Pominville

Zach Parise - Erik Haula - Thomas Vanek

Nino Niederreiter - Charlie Coyle - Justin Fontaine

Ryan Carter - Kyle Brodziak - Matt Cooke

Ryan Suter - Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin - Christian Folin

Jonathon Blum - Nate Prosser

Niklas Backstrom

John Curry

Scratched: Justin Falk, Jordan Schroeder

Injured: Marco Scandella (upper body), Darcy Kuemper (lower body), Mikael Granlund (wrist), Keith Ballard (face/head)

BLACKHAWKS

Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa

Bryan Bickell - Brad Richards - Patrick Kane

Patrick Sharp - Andrew Shaw - Teuvo Teravainen

Daniel Carcillo - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith

Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson

David Rundblad - Michal Rozsival

Scratched: Joakim Nordstrom, Tim Erixon

Injured: Kris Versteeg (hand/wrist fracture), Trevor van Riemsdyk (fractured patella)

Status report: Teravainen, who played almost exclusively at center in the American Hockey League, has played all three forward positions in four games since he was recalled. ... Erixon will be a healthy scratch for the sixth straight game and has played five of 12 games since Chicago acquired him Dec. 14 from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade for forward Jeremy Morin. ... Carcillo is back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch in three of the previous four games.

Who's hot: Saad scored both goals for Chicago in its 5-2 loss at Edmonton and has scored five goals in the past seven games. ... Niederreiter has assists in the past two games.

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