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Best in West meet as Wild host Blackhawks

by Davis Harper

BLACKHAWKS (18-8-4) at WILD (20-8-3)


LAST 10: Chicago 6-3-1; Minnesota 7-3-0

Season Series: This is the first of four meetings. Chicago has dominated the series in recent seasons, going 6-1-1 since the start of 2009-10, including a 4-2 win in their most recent encounter on Feb. 28, 2011.

Big Story: At long last, the Western Conference's top teams will face off on Wednesday. Though Minnesota holds a three-point edge (43-30) in the standings and has won seven of eight, the Wild arguably have more to prove against the established Blackhawks. The matchup, which pits Minnesota's resourceful, team defensive scheme against Chicago's potent attack, will go some way in determining the cream of the Conference.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: Chicago may be winning more often than not, but no one would accuse the Western's second-best team of doing so with ease. It has taken at least overtime to determine four of Chicago's last five, and Chicago has prevailed in the last two thanks in large part to one player: Patrick Sharp. Sharp has back-to-back overtime winners to run his recent goals tear to nine in his last eight games. After he scored his most recent on Sunday against San Jose, Sharp said winning late - and winning ugly - would be keys for Chicago's progression.

"We stole it in overtime," Sharp said. "It wasn't the prettiest game, but it's what we'll have to do down the stretch the rest of the way - win games like that, find a way to win the ugly ones."

Chicago will stick with Ray Emery (6-1-2, 2.69 GAA) after he made a season-high 35 saves against San Jose.

Wild: After winning seven in a row overall - and seven straight on the road - Minnesota fell in Winnipeg, 2-1, on Tuesday night. The Wild have a quick turnaround as they travel home to face Chicago, and that means there's little time to regain focus and fix what coach Mike Yeo called "loose" play.

"I thought we were pretty loose in a lot in of areas, in particular with how we played with the puck," Yeo said. "It just lead to a little too much open ice for them and a little too much back-and-forth, and when you do that, you turn it into a 50-50, game which is what it was."

"There does come a time where, like it or not, it's tough to keep your urgency level up as high as it is," Yeo continued, "and keep the same focus going into every game, and I didn't feel like we had it tonight."

Who's Hot: Chicago's Marian Hossa has five points in his last two games. … The three players who combined for Minnesota's lone goal Tuesday - Gabriel Latendresse, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley - all continued impressive streaks. Latendresse has four goals in five games, Koivu has a five-game points streak and Heatley has recorded a point in seven straight.

Injury Report: Chicago is healthy. … For Minnesota, key forward Devin Setoguchi (left ankle) is on injured reserve, and center Matt Cullen (flu-like symptoms) and backup goalie Josh Harding (head) missed Tuesday's game against Winnipeg. Defenseman Justin Falk is also on injured reserve with back spasms, and center Pierre-Marc Bouchard left late in Tuesday's game after being driven into the end boards by Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian.

Stat Pack: Along with Sharp (31 points), three other Hawks - Jonathan Toews (32), Hossa (31) and Patrick Kane (31) - are in the top 16 in the League in scoring, and Chicago is fourth in the League with 3.20 goals per game. The Hawks will face a stout test in the Wild, who are fourth in goals allowed (2.10) and bring a physical brand of hockey to the ice.

Puck Drop: "We didn't play [well] enough today. They were better, and we got a little bit lucky in the second period and thought we played OK, but, you know, it's not good enough for us." - Wild goalie Nicklas Backstrom on Tuesday's loss, Minnesota's first in eight games.

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