Game preview: Getting Wild in Chicago
The Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks last met up on a rainy day in mid-December in St. Paul. The Blackhawks came away with a shoot out win, with Patrick Kane providing a memorable goal to seal the win.
It was the second game in an eight-game losing streak for the Wild; including being shut out 0-4 by the Canucks on Vancouver ice. The Wild have had just 2 wins in their past 13 games; their record in that stretch is 2-8-3. It is a far cry from the 20-7-3 that Minnesota started the season with; and the Wild has plunged from first in the West to 7th, hanging on ahead of the rising Los Angeles Kings. The Wild has been hurt by injuries; Clayton Stoner just returned to the roster this weekend, while Guillaume Latendresse, Jarod Palmer, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard remain out of the lineup. Josh Harding was not feeling well after the Sharks game, and Matt Hackett (2-0-0) was called up from Houston as a precaution; Colton Gillies is day-to-day. Despite their past month being a rough ride, the Wild came out against the Sharks at home for a shootout win on and emotional Tuesday night as they honored injured Minnesota hockey player Jack Jablonski; they will hope to build momentum going into the United Center.
In the meantime, Chicago continues to battle it out for top position in both the Central and the West, currently carrying a 25-13-5 record and 55 points. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, they are currently down their best scorer, Patrick Sharp, who sustained a wrist injury earlier this week vs. Detroit. Daniel Carcillo remains out of the lineup with his suspension (and injury); and Marcus Kruger is nearly ready to return from his concussion, although it probably won't be on Thursday night. Tuesday, the Blackhawks took a decisive 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, including Viktor Stalberg's first NHL hat trick.
Despite injuries, the Blackhawks have plenty to feel positive about. The injuries on the roster have led to call ups for forwards Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, and Ben Smith; Rockford defenseman Dylan Olsen also got a look recently. Andrew Shaw has provided all the spark and fire of Carcillo but with the fine-line sensibility that Dave Bolland brings to the game. Ben Smith brings energy and skill, a solid grinder who can score.
Big Jimmy Hayes (6'6") got his first NHL goal with his first shot on goal in his first game vs Edmonton, added another in Philadelphia, and his ice time steadily increased over the past five games; he's been the most productive call up this season. In that handful of games, he's already leapt to 16th on the team in hits (17), willingly gets dirty in front of the net, and has a good eye on the ice. In short, Hayes is the kind of player that the Blackhawks have missed since having to trade Andrew Ladd, and the player that the Hawks have been hoping to see out of Bryan Bickell for three seasons. When Kruger returns to the lineup, it's going to lead to some difficult decisions; but Jimmy Hayes is showing that he has the goods and drive to hold on to a spot with the team.
Will we see an appearance by Sami Lepistö for the Blackhawks this game? The Finnish defenseman has the 3rd-best +/- ranking among D-men on the Blackhawks (and 8th best overall); he hits, blocks, shoots and carries the puck out of the zone; his takeaways outnumber his giveaways. But every year, Coach Quenneville seems to have a player in his doghouse; this year, it's apparently Lepistö. Defenseman Nick Leddy has been showing his youth over the past several games (he's currently tied with Andrew Brunette for a team-worst -9), and it wouldn't hurt Leddy to sit out a game as a healthy scratch. If sitting Leddy for a game as a scratch is too huge a potential risk vs putting in Lepistö, this team has more defensive issues than first glance would offer.
Ray Emery is expected to get the start in goal for Chicago; this should not be a surprise. He played well against the Wild in December, and the backup goalie should not be allowed to get rusty on the bench. With the team heading to Detroit for their first away game against the Red Wings this season, they will want to have Corey Crawford rested and ready for that game, especially as this weekend includes a back-to-back against the Sharks.
WHERE TO WATCH
In Chicago: CSN Chicago; for radio, WGN 720 (phone app available)
In Minnesota: FOX Sports North; for radio, via the Wild.NHL.com website