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Wild still can't shake Blackhawks

Minnesota having best season in its history, but rival Chicago still biggest test

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

The Minnesota Wild are having the best season in franchise history. Never before have they had 92 points through 66 games. Never before have they led the Western Conference this late in the season.

Yet three points behind are the Chicago Blackhawks, who are having, well, the usual.

"They're a really good team," Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "They're beyond a really good team. They're a great team."

When the Wild play the Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET; NBC, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), a main storyline will be whether the Wild can go from really good to beyond really good to maybe even great. Can they hold off the Blackhawks in the standings? Can they defeat them if they meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Can they win the Cup for the first time?

 

[Related: Playoff race primer: Central Division]

 

Yes, when the Wild played the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Second Round two years ago, they were supposed to have what it took to defeat the Blackhawks, finally. Not only did the Blackhawks eliminate the Wild from the playoffs for the third year in a row, they never trailed, swept them, hardly celebrated and went on to win the Cup for the third time in six years.

But much has changed.

"The teams are so different," Chicago GM Stan Bowman said. "I mean, they have a new coach now. They have different players. We have different players. I don't know that it really amounts to much how we did a couple years ago in the playoffs."

Fletcher has not built his team to beat the Blackhawks specifically. He has built his team to be as strong, deep and versatile as possible to match up against anyone, including the Blackhawks.

He brought in coach Bruce Boudreau, who is having the same regular-season success he had with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks, getting the players to buy into the system and feel good about it.

Some names are the same, like captain Mikko Koivu, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. But younger players have developed, particularly forward Mikael Granlund, and new additions have bolstered the roster, particularly center Eric Staal.

The Wild's identity is defense and balanced scoring. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk leads the NHL in save percentage at .932. Entering play Saturday, the Wild rank second in the League in goals per game (3.30), fourth in goals against (2.38), eighth on the power play (21.2 percent) and eighth on the penalty kill (83.7).

Video: CHI@MIN: Dubnyk robs Kane with a diving glove save

No one ranks among the top 34 in goals, but the Wild are one of four teams with four 20-goal scorers and one of five with 10 double-digit goal-scorers.

"You're not going to beat them if you have two good lines and then two lines that are not executing," Bowman said. "They don't just load up on one line. They've got guys on every line who can score."

Now they have center Martin Hanzal and forward Ryan White too.

The Wild have been going through an adjustment period since Fletcher acquired Hanzal and White from the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 26, three days before the NHL Trade Deadline, Boudreau trying different line combinations, Hanzal playing for a new team for the first time in his 10-year NHL career, White playing for his third team in two seasons.

But the idea is that Hanzal (6-foot-6, 226 pounds) and White (6-0, 200) address a weakness in size, helping the Wild win more battles and play better below the hash marks in both zones, and that Hanzal strengthens the Wild down the middle. He's a two-way player who can take hard shifts and matchups from Koivu and Staal, giving them more energy and opportunity for offense.

Video: MIN@WPG: White fires wrister past Hellebuyck

"I don't think we've had any players that are playing so above and beyond what you'd expect," Fletcher said. "I think players are playing to expectations. They're playing to the level of their ability on a fairly regular basis. So I think we can sustain this. But you know, obviously, you look around the West. There's a few other teams that are starting to play really well right now. They're playing their best hockey."

Like Chicago.

The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 at the United Center on Jan. 15. But the Blackhawks have gone 15-6-0 since, including two wins against the Wild at Xcel Energy Center -- 4-3 in overtime on Feb. 8 and 5-3 on Feb. 21.

The Blackhawks have their vaunted core, led by captain Jonathan Toews, forward Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith. The question entering the season was their depth, but it seems to have been answered. Most notably forward Richard Panik has been productive, rookie Ryan Hartman has been consistent, rookie Nick Schmaltz has hit his stride since a stint in the minors, and Bowman added forward Tomas Jurco and defenseman Johnny Oduya before the trade deadline. They look like a typical Chicago team again.

Bottom line: The Wild do have what it takes to defeat the Blackhawks now. But the Blackhawks still have what it takes to defeat the Wild.

"They don't have any weaknesses personnel-wise, so then it just comes down to who executes better," Bowman said. "I think they're a very formidable team. We tend to play well when we're challenged like that. I know the games this year against them have just been really entertaining hockey games."

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