With the other 28 NHL teams scheduled for an off day, the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will have the League stage all to themselves for the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
Despite their 32-17-5 record, the third-best in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks are looking up at the Wild (35-12-5) in the Central Division standings; Minnesota has a six-point lead and two games in hand on Chicago. For the Blackhawks to have any hopes of catching the Wild for the division title, a win at Xcel Energy Center is a must.
With a lot on the line for each team, here are 5 reasons to tune in:
Though Chicago eliminated Minnesota from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Wild have had everything going their way during the regular season. Beginning with a 3-0 shutout on Feb. 3, 2015, Minnesota has won eight in a row against Chicago. That includes a 3-2 victory at United Center on Jan. 15, when the Wild rallied from a 2-0 deficit. The Blackhawks, usually one of the NHL's best offensive teams, have scored 12 goals in those eight games and allowed 28.
Kane & Co.
Chicago forward Patrick Kane isn't likely to repeat as the NHL's top scorer this season, but he and his linemates are piling up points again after a quiet period. Kane has goals in back-to-back games and leads the Blackhawks with 52 points (17 goals, 35 assists) in 54 games. Artemi Panarin, the Calder Trophy winner last season, is second on the Blackhawks in scoring with 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists). Center Artemi Anisimov is third with 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) with a team-high six game-winning goals. They've produced 10 points in Chicago's past two games (road wins against the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars) and have stayed together despite coach Joel Quenneville's penchant for tinkering.
Video: CHI@DAL: Kane cuts to the net and slides in backhand
Granlund takes flight on the wing
It has taken the better part of six seasons and a position switch, but Mikael Granlund appears to be coming into his own as an offensive force for the Wild. Minnesota selected Granlund with the No. 9 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft and he has been a useful but hardly dynamic player since joining the Wild in 2013. But he has flourished after being moved from center to playing right wing with fellow Finn Mikko Koivu, a switch that has allowed his offensive creativity to come to the fore. After scoring three goals against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday for his first NHL trick, Granlund was named the NHL's Second Star of the Week and enters the game as the Wild's leading scorer. His 15 goals and 48 points already are NHL career highs, and he's on pace for 23 goals and 75 points.
Battle of the elite defensemen
One reason the Blackhawks and Wild are among the NHL's elite is each has a star on defense who contributes offensively and defensively, and eats minutes. Minnesota's Ryan Suter has 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) and is tied for the League lead at plus-32, playing 27.10 per game, third in the NHL. Chicago's Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, has 36 points (four goals, 32 points) and is plus-6; he's sixth in the NHL in average time on ice with 25:58 per game.
Video: ANA@MIN: Suter scores from below the goal line
Home and road
The game against Chicago is the first of eight in a row at home for Minnesota, all against Western Conference teams (including the Blackhawks again on Feb. 21). The Wild are 17-6-0 at Xcel Energy Center and have a chance to blow the race for the division and conference titles wide open. The Blackhawks are in the middle of a six-game road trip. A loss to the Wild will leave them eight points behind Minnesota with two more road games on their trip, while the Wild prepare to spend the next two-plus weeks at home.