Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild are neck-and-neck in the race for first place in the Central Division and perhaps the Western Conference. Minnesota has 75 points, six more than Chicago, and has played two fewer games. Home ice advantage can be critical in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so every point matters.
These teams are no strangers to each other either, having met in the playoffs in three of the past four seasons; the Blackhawks eliminated the Wild in the first round in 2013 and the second round in 2014 and 2015. It's the second of four games between the teams this season; the Wild won 3-2 in Chicago on Jan. 15.
The Blackhawks (32-17-5) have won two straight after losing the opener of their six-game road trip and visit the Wild (35-12-5), who begin a season-long eight-game homestand at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Opponents still don't know how to contain the line of Patrick Kane (52 points), Artem Anisimov (37), and Artemi Panarin (48 points). The Blackhawks play their top three scorers on the same line, and it's been one of the best in the NHL over the past two seasons.
Jonathan Toews has 10 goals and 30 points this season but has picked it up recently with four goals and five assists in seven games. Marian Hossa (19 goals) has been great. The Blackhawks can score and make plays in many different ways, a big reason for their success during the past six, seven seasons.
Video: CHI@ARI: Panarin winds up, buries blazing one-timer
Minuses: Corey Crawford was great before he had his appendectomy in December, and it's taken him a while to get his timing back. He's winning some games, but has allowed at least three goals in 11 of the 16 starts since returning.
Chicago also needs more production from its bottom-six forwards; the top six guys have carried the team offensively for most of the season. The same can be said of the defensemen. Behind Duncan Keith (36 points) and Brent Seabrook (27 points), Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk haven't been very productive.
Pluses: They are getting production up and down the lineup and aren't dependent on one line. The top two scorers are Mikael Granlund (15 goals, 48 points) and Eric Staal (16 goals, 42 points), not the players many likely thought would be there when the season began. Jason Pominville had four points on Tuesday, Nino Niederreiter had two goals, and Charlie Coyle had three assists. Another depth player is Chris Stewart, who has fit in perfectly in his second stint with the team.
Next, they defend exceptionally well. Ryan Suter's superb play is evident by his plus-32 rating, which is tied for first in the League. The Wild's team defense has been great under new coach Bruce Boudreau. Obviously some of that defensive work can be credited to Devan Dubnyk. He's 29-9-3 with a 1.99 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and five shutouts and is a favorite for the Vezina Trophy.
The Wild are also excellent at home (17-6-0) and get to play their next eight games at Xcel Energy Center. That is a huge advantage, and they can start it off on the right foot against the Blackhawks.
Video: MIN@VAN: Granlund uses one hand to record hat trick
Minuses: Can Minnesota keep it up? They've been Jekyll-and-Hyde in the past few seasons but haven't had any poor stretches this season. They'll need to prove that they can play this way consistently during the final 30 games of the season.
Another thing for them is that they're not overly physical. Even with Stewart, who provides them with grit, I don't know as a team that they have enough players who can get physical when needed.
Lastly, it's important for them to believe in and know that they can beat the Blackhawks. Minnesota want to become what Chicago is, a perennial Cup contender, and stringing together a few more wins against the Blackhawks during the regular season could help them forget what happened in three of the past four playoffs.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The straight-ahead speed of Chicago.
2. The Blackhawks' ability to use the width of the rink, not just the length.
3. How do the Wild handle themselves in this game?