ST. PAUL -- It's early November, but the Wild is about to embark on one of its most important tests of the entire regular season.
While the contest doesn't rise to the level of the cliched "must-win," the outcome of any time the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks tangle on the ice will be looked at once the schedule tightens later in the season.
"I think it's really important, it's our biggest game of the year, even though it is November and Game 12," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "Up to date, right now, it's probably our No. 1 rival. Last year we beat them the first game we played them and they beat us the rest of the games. So they obviously got up for it a little bit more than us. We're mentally ready and we've gotta get to that stage tomorrow."
Minnesota will try and win against Chicago for the second time in as many tries on Saturday after somehow escaping the Windy City three weeks ago with two points in hand. The Wild lost forwards Marcus Foligno, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle during the game, and at one point, with two other forwards in the penalty box, Boudreau looked at just six available forwards to choose from.
Still, the Wild persevered to the tune of four third-period goals in an impressive 5-2 victory.
"It was a unique game, that's for sure. We gutted that one out against a good team at their rink," said Wild forward Eric Staal, who scored a goal in the first matchup. "With the amount of guys we had go down and how long we had to play with a short bench, it was impressive. It's nice to have a couple of those bodies back from that game, obviously still missing a few key ones, but [it's a] big test for us tomorrow at our rink and hopefully we respond the right way tomorrow."
Niederreiter has since returned to the lineup and has one point in each of his first two games since re-joining the group on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
Mikael Granlund, who missed the first Hawks game with a groin injury, is coming off his first multi-point game since his return.
"It'll be big, and it's the last one on the homestand here before we go out on the road for a few, so you want to make sure you're finishing strong here," Staal said. "We had a great start last night and we're going to need the same things tomorrow. Good test for us against a good team and we should be excited about it."
Video: Boudreau talks division rivalry with Chicago
As Boudreau noted, the Wild won the first of four matchups last season only to see Chicago rebound and win the final three contests. Their level of play advanced a clear notch or two above where it was the first game, and after losing on home ice to Minnesota last month, Boudreau said he expects Chicago to put its best skate forward on Saturday.
"Chicago broke a losing streak with a big 3-nothing shutout win over Philadelphia [on Wednesday]," Boudreau said. "I think they're gonna try to get a little roll going and we're trying to do the same thing, so it'll be a good battle."
Out of the cage
Foligno, who sustained a facial fracture in a second period fight with Blackhawks forward John Hayden in the first matchup, played his first game without the cage on his helmet against Montreal on Thursday.
Now, 48 hours later, Foligno will be playing the team -- and the player -- against which he sustained his injury.
"I knew it would happen one day, we play them quite a bit," Foligno said on Thursday. "I guess that stuff lines up pretty nicely in the sense of coincidence but I just have to treat it like another game. The past is the past and we gotta look toward the future."
For Foligno, who said he hadn't played with a cage since he was 15 or 16 years old, playing with one was a big adjustment.
"When the puck's in the wall you gotta look up right away, little things like that where your peripheral is hindered a little bit because of it. I'm excited to get it off and get going now," Foligno said. "There was a difference [Thursday] for sure. It feels good just to have that off. Makes you feel like more yourself, with a cage you can't play a full game and I feel really good to hopefully test it out tonight."
Foligno said he has no restrictions on whether he can fight or not, and passed on an opportunity that may have arisen against the Canadiens on Thursday.
During the second period, Foligno dished out a big hit along the wall on Montreal's Michael McCarron, who was not pleased with the action taken against him.
McCarron got into Foligno's face, but Foligno simply smiled and skated away back to the bench.
"It might be smart not to test it right away, but we're good to go with that," Foligno said. "I'm good to go to play my full game, no delay on that kind of stuff."
'Simple game' helps Dumba find groove
Just 48 hours after being benched in a one-goal loss to Winnipeg, Wild defenseman Matt Dumba rebounded to have his best game of the season against the Canadiens.
Dumba, who had the scoring of his first goal of the season changed after the game, finished with two assists and a plus-2.
The key, according to Boudreau, was playing a simple brand of hockey.
"He was good. He was obviously prepared for the game but he made the simple plays. When you make simple plays good things happen," Boudreau said. "He didn't try to do too much and when you do that you end up doing more than enough."
Perhaps no play was more emblematic of that mantra than his "goal," which was later changed and credited to Nino Niederreiter.
Video: MTL@MIN: Niederreiter notches goal on tip-in
Just 10 seconds after Matt Cullen gave the Wild a 1-0 lead, Dumba gained control of the puck at the right point, took aim at the net and fired a fairly innocent looking shot toward the Montreal goal.
Niederreiter stuck his stick out and tipped the puck over the shoulder of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, giving the Wild an early 2-0 lead.
"We've been preaching that for awhile and he did it," Boudreau said. "He was shooting it and we were getting good opportunities. That's what he has to do. When you get it sometimes you try to want to make the perfect play and you don't realize that sometimes the perfect play is the first play."