Battle of the Best in the West
Just over eight months ago, the Minnesota Wild made all the difference in the world to the Chicago Blackhawks.
On the afternoon of April 10th, the Blackhawks lost at home to the Detroit Red Wings in game 82 of their season. Although the Blackhawks held a 2-point lead over the Dallas Stars in the standings, everybody - from the fans right through to the players - assumed the season was over. Minnesota hadn't been playing well; the Wild had been out of the playout race for several games. All the Stars needed to do was beat the Wild - and, tied at 97 points with Chicago, the tiebreaker would put Dallas, not the Blackhawks, into the playoffs.
Everybody wrote off the Wild - that is, except the Wild.
Dallas played their own game 82 against the Wild that night in Minneapolis. The Stars looked like they were playing like the game was a given - and the Wild played like their own playoff hopes were on the line. Games between the Stars and the Wild are always charged; after all, the Dallas Stars were once the Minnesota North Stars. The Wild might be the state's new team, but the scars are not forgotten. And if they weren't going to the playoffs, well, they were taking somebody out with them.
The headline on the Wild's website the next morning said it all: "By the way Chicago: You're welcome."
Chicago was granted a stay of execution, which they parlayed into one of the most thrilling playoff series in recent history: starting off poorly, they put themselves in an 0-3 hole, only to turn things around and force a historic Game 7.
While Chicago's 2011 Cup championship ended on Vancouver ice at the end of that series, it added an interesting new layer to a history between the teams.
Back in the days when the divisions bore names like Norris and Adams, and the Minnesota team was the North Stars, there was a strong and bitter rivalry between Chicago and Minnesota. Looking ahead to the 2012-2013 season, the Blackhawks and Wild will create a new rivalry born under the new conference structure that will go into effect new year.
In the meantime, however, Minnesota stands #1 in the West at 43 points, and Chicago is right behind them at #2 with 40. The teams have been nipping at each other's heels for the top spot in the conference all season, and Chicago currently has one game in hand over the Wild.
The Wild (20-8-3) this year is a new team, as discussed in "Hockey gone Wild". They revamped their top lines, traded some major players with the San Jose Sharks, and most importantly, got a new coach, Mike Yeo. The players have committed themselves to the team system, and they're playing solid, defensively strong hockey. If you haven't watched the Wild recently, you're missing some good hockey.
Chicago (18-8-4) fixed its major issues this year - trading away large salaries, picking up missing pieces through trade or free agency. While the team has struggled at times with some sloppy play which has occasionally bit them, overall, they are better this year, and they continue to pick up win after win playing their usual high-paced, offensively minded game.
Expect a fast, exciting game. Not only is this the first matchup this season between the two teams, and neither is interested in giving up points to the other. While there's been little bad blood between the Wild and the Blackhawks - after all, Minnesota hasn't been in the playoff picture very often since their founding - there's a lot to look forward to as these two teams re-spark a historical competition.
POINTS OF INTEREST
- This will be Andrew Brunette's first game against the Wild with the Blackhawks. He spent the last 3 seasons with Minnesota, and six seasons total on the Wild team.
- Nick Leddy, a Minnesota native and Wild draft pick who was traded to Chicago a couple years ago, is in his second season with the Blackhawks. The primary player that the Wild traded for - Cam Barker - had his contract bought out by the Wild this summer.
- Former Sharks players Devin Setoguchi and Danny Heatley spent a few years with San Jose, which enjoyed a heated rivalry with the Blackhawks. This will be their first game against Chicago with their new team. Former Blackhawk Martin Havlat was sent to the Sharks in the trades that brought Setoguchi and Heatley to Minnesota.
WHERE TO WATCH
The Blackhawks will drop the puck in Minnesota on Versus at 6:30pm Central time; WGN radio (phone app available) will also broadcast the game.