WILD (20-19-3) at BLACKHAWKS (29-10-3)
Minnesota 5-5-0; Chicago 8-2-0
Chicago leads the season series 1-0 after knocking off the Wild, 3-1, on Oct. 26.
After a strong December, Minnesota has begun to slip and now faces the considerable task of curtailing its current slide against the surging Blackhawks before it becomes too damaging.
Like most teams, Minnesota has an annual road trip on which players are allowed to invite their fathers to come along. That trip happens to be this week, as the Wild have spent the last two days with their patresfamilias enjoying the Windy City ahead of Tuesday's matchup with the Blackhawks. Of course, with the Bulls playing Oklahoma City Monday night, the United Center rink was obscured by a basketball court on which the various Wild players tried their hand with a light-hearted family shootaround Monday afternoon.
Given their results they should stick with hockey, but even their performance on the ice, while dramatically better than on the hardwood, has been uneven lately. Minnesota followed a three-game winning streak with its current three-game skid, including a 5-3 loss Saturday against the Devils and former bench boss Jacques Lemaire.
While some players have produced offensively -- Martin Havlat and Andrew Brunette
both have four-game point streaks -- the problem could lie in net, where a potentially tired Niklas Backstrom
has uncharacteristically given up at least three goals in six of his last seven starts. The Finn may get some necessary rest Tuesday with the Wild coming home to play Calgary Wednesday, but backup Josh Harding
could be rusty, as he has started just once in the past three weeks.
On the flip side, one has to wonder what isn't going well for Chicago. The Hawks have a grueling month ahead of them with an eight-game road trip to close out January, but so far Chicago is taking the challenge in stride. The Blackhawks have won their last three games, in the span of four days no less, including an impressive 5-1 trouncing of those same East-leading Devils that defeated Minnesota on Saturday. While the Hawks have gotten impressive goaltending from Cristobal Huet
and Antti Niemi this season, the high-octane offense has really taken center stage of late.
Chicago has scored at least four goals in six straight games, with a number of forwards contributing offensively. Last year's Calder Trophy finalist, Kris Versteeg, has a four-game point streak, while Troy Brouwer has lit the lamp three times in four games. While the Hawks are proving themselves to be a complete team offensively, the big names are still carrying much of the weight as Jonathan Toews
has 11 points in the last seven games. The best sign for the Hawks, however, might be that major offseason acquisition Marian Hossa
has begun to find his groove, notching five points in his last three games and delivering his second two-goal outing of the season in Sunday's win over Anaheim.
Minnesota's Mikko Koivu
has shouldered much of the burden offensively, scoring eight points over his current six-game points streak. … Patrick Kane
, meanwhile, continues chugging along for Chicago. The winger, who found out Jan. 1 that he would be playing in his first Olympics next month, has an eight-game point streak -- one shy of his career high which was set earlier this season. Kane has 14 points during his current run and 48 points overall.
Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson
is still questionable for Chicago due to the lingering effects of a head injury, while Minnesota might be without Owen Nolan, who is questionable for undisclosed reasons.
The Hawks' offense is scary enough with both sides at even strength -- though Hawks winger and Wisconsin alum Adam Burish might consider the term "even strength" debatable -- but Chicago has only been more dangerous with the extra man lately. The Hawks have scored a power play goal in seven straight games, converting on eight of 25 opportunities.
While Chicago is battling with San Jose for the best record in the West, as well as the League, the Wild are scrapping just to be in the playoff discussion. While all signs might point to Minnesota's struggles continuing, the Wild does have history on its side. Minnesota has won six of its last eight at the United Center, and if the Wild still falls Tuesday, it will have another shot at the Hawks Saturday in Minnesota.