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Blackhawks-Wild Preview @NHLdotcom

Coming off the most successful regular season in franchise history, the Minnesota Wild have higher hopes.

With those expectations on the rise, the Wild open the season against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

Minnesota recorded franchise bests with 48 wins and 104 points to finish second to Vancouver in the Northwest Division in 2006-07, but lost in five games to eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Though the short postseason stay might have tarnished their accomplishments a bit, Minnesota hopes to be even more successful this time with the return of five 20-goal scorers and goaltender Niklas Backstrom.

Backstrom, who went 23-8-6 with an NHL-best 1.97 goals-against average last season as a rookie, signed a two-year $6.2 million contract in June and looks to maintain his stellar play in 2007-08. Backstrom's solid performance enabled Minnesota to deal veteran Manny Fernandez to Boston in the offseason.

"I have to be ready every day," said Backstrom, who gave up three goals or fewer in 38 of his 41 appearances. "I think that's the way I can improve my own game, to work hard and try to do everything as good as possible. If I lay down for a day or sit down for a day, then I'm not improving my game.

"It's the best league in the world, and somebody is for sure going to take your spot then."

While Backstrom is poised to avoid a sophomore slump, the Wild hope veteran winger Marian Gaborik can stay healthy for an entire season.

Gaborik, who has spent his entire career with the franchise that debuted in 2000-01, has yet to play a full 82-game season due to injuries and missed 34 last season with a groin injury.

However, when Gaborik returned, Minnesota went 31-9-6 over its final 46 games and he finished second on the team with 30 goals.

"That's the No. 1 thing for me - to stay healthy," said Gaborik, who has scored at least 30 goals in four of his last five seasons. "I'm going to stay healthy and compete at the top level and help this team to get to another level and to win games."

He will have help with forwards Brian Rolston (31 goals), Pavol Demitra (25), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (20) and Mikko Koivu (20) all coming off solid seasons.

While Minnesota looks to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time, Chicago will try to snap a four-year skid without a postseason appearance. Last season, the Blackhawks finished fifth in the Central Division for the second time in three years and their 195 goals were second fewest to Edmonton's 192.

Martin Havlat missed 26 games with various injuries, but still led Chicago with 25 goals and 57 points. He should get some help with the additions of veterans Sergei Samsonov, Robert Lang and All-Star Yanic Perreault.

Samsonov, who had just nine goals in 2006-07 during his only season in Montreal, could be a factor if he regains the form when he scored 20 or more goals in five of his first eight seasons with Boston and Edmonton.

"We feel he has a lot left in the tank and playing under (coach) Denis Savard will bring out the offensive creativity that he has shown in the past," Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon said.

Forwards Jonathan Toews, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, and Patrick Kane, the top overall pick in 2007, could also contribute this season, but Toews is expected to miss the opener with a broken finger.

The Blackhawks also look for goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to finally perform to the level he did when he won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa Bay. Khabibulin was 25-26-5 last season and is 42-52-11 with a 3.06 GAA in two seasons with Chicago.

Khabibulin is entering the third season of his four-year, $27 million contract

The Blackhawks will open the season days after owner William Wirtz passed away from cancer at age 77.

Minnesota, which went 4-0-0 against Chicago last season, will try for its eighth consecutive victory over the Blackhawks.

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