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Put Up Or Shut Up: Blackhawks Host Minnesota Wild at the UC

For a view on the Wild, read Bartl’s interview with Wild.com’s Glen Andresen.

The time for moaning and groaning is over. No more excuses. Sure, we’ve had a lot of illness and injuries. Sure, we don’t have a firm handle on who our “starting” goaltender is — like that designation matters. Sure, everyone’s on pins and needles because there might be another trade coming in the next two weeks. Sure, we’re elbow-deep in a tight playoff race with 10 other teams all shooting for the same five slots in a kill-or-get-killed race to an invisible finish line.

Does any of this matter? Verily I say unto thee, it does not. The name of the game is HOCKEY. Pass, shoot, score. Forget the press, forget the rumor mill, forget the standings. Forget everything but the fact that in five seconds it’s your shift, and you had better get your ass out there and give 110%. Head up, stick down, anticipate, don’t forget what’s behind you. It’s time to put the blinders on, fellas. It’s crunch time.

In order to make the playoffs in the Western Conference during the 2007-08 season, you needed 89 points. In 2008-09, that threshold rose to 90. In 2009-10, it was 91. See the trend? I think we can safely assume that the Blackhawks will need 92 points to make the post-season this year. For the sake of staying at least moderately optimistic, we’ll ignore the fact that a team needed 96 points to make the playoffs in 2006-07.

Right now the ‘Hawks are sitting on 62 points. That means in the next 26 games we need at least 30 points. That’s 15 wins — or if we want to do it the hard way, as this team has a penchant for doing for some strange reason, 5 wins and a minimum of 20 games pushed into OT. I think if they tried to do it that way at least a third of their fan base would die of heart failure before April 10th got here. Starting with me.

And of course, each game against a Western Conference opponent has a bonus factor. The more points we earn in those games, the fewer points the other teams competing for playoff spots against us can have. And the bonus gets even bigger in games when we are playing teams within 5 points of our position in the standings. Beat Vancouver or Edmonton, it’s just two points. But beat the Blues or the Kings, that’s essentially a four-point game — two for us, and two that they’ll never get.

Tonight is one of those games.

The Minnesota Wild comes into this game 3 points ahead of the Blackhawks, and fresh off a 4 – 1 loss to Vancouver last night. They bring with them a balanced scoring attack, but a dodgy defensive corps and goaltending that regularly has had to endure 35 shots per night. They’re tired, and they’re frustrated. Though they have enjoyed quite a winning streak in the last four weeks — 9 wins in their last 12 contests — they are a team we can, and should, beat.

The Wild do not have a 20-goal scorer so far this season, but they have 8 players with 10 or more — same as the Blackhawks. Leading the charge is former Blackhawk winger Martin Havlat, who has finally decided to live up to his franchise-player salary, get in a full season and deliver the goods. Close behind is Mikko Koivu, then there’s a substantial drop-off to the sizable next tier. In among those is the surging Cal Clutterbuck, who has 5G / 4A in his last 11 games.

Scoring does not come from the blueline, with the exception of Brent Burns who has notched 14 goals from the point, 6 on the power play. The defensive corps has been a bit of a rotating mess throughout the season, as only 3 guys have played more than 50 of the Wild’s 55 games to date. The other three positions have been filled by a rotating cadre of occasionally-injured veterans and eager pups from the farm club. It’s no surprise, therefore, that we find few of the Wild’s defensemen with a positive plus-minus.

The Minnesota goaltender corps has two marquee names to its credit: Niklas Backstrom has Jose Theodore as his backup this season. There was a stretch in early- to mid-January where Theodore was handling the entire load as Backstrom recovered from a hip injury. But Backstrom has taken 9 of the last 11 starts and has backstopped the Wild to their latest winning streak. With the Wild on the second half of back-to-back games this evening, Theodore is the announced starter.

The key to beating Minnesota is getting more than two goals behind them. With the exception of an anomalous swing through western Canada in January where they clobbered Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton by a combined score of 14 – 1, they rarely win or lose a game by more than a single goal, and they don’t usually let their opponents score more than twice. More often than not, if you can get that third goal against the Wild, you’ll beat them. Last night was another example of that exact theory.

The Blackhawks are coming off two overtime losses that concluded a hit-and-miss road trip. During that time Coach Joel Quenneville did some juggling with both the forward lines and the defensive pairings, but nothing ‘clicked’ in a way that would cause anyone to sit up and take notice. Putting Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith together seems to have been a mistake, as there is not enough muscle or stay-at-homey-ness to prevent stretch pass breakaways like we saw against Phoenix. We’ll see if those two stay together. Expect another change on the front lines tonight, as Marian Hossa and newcomer Michael Frolik will be centered by Dave Bolland.

The who’s-in-who’s-out: for the Wild, Marek Zidlicky is still on injured reserve with a bad shoulder; and for the Blackhawks, there’s no Ryan Johnson or Fernando Pisani; Jake Dowell and Patrick Kane skated today, but despite optimistic predictions from the coaching staff, I think it’s safer to say they are game-time decisions; Leddy is back from Rockford, and Corey Crawford gets the call in net.

Plus, earlier today we got the news that Coach QStache was admitted to the hospital on Tuesday night. The “health concern” as it is being called is reportedly *not* of a cardiac nature, so that’s some good news. He is still in the hospital, reported to be in stable condition, and will be replaced on the bench by Assistant Coach Mike Haviland for tonight’s game. Everyone here at BlackhawkUp sends along their best wishes to Coach Q for a speedy recovery.

7:00pm puck drop at the United Center, and it’s a national TV broadcast on Versus for those of you outside Chicagoland. Local TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers can find the game on channel 208.

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