After three days without Chicago Blackhawks hockey, the team returns in a big way today, participating in a Stadium Series game against the host Minnesota Wild. Yesterday, the alumni teams played a fun game at TCF Bank Stadium, with the North Stars/Wild defeating the Blackhawks 6-4. Eric Daze tallied a pair of goals, current Blackhawks radio color analyst Troy Murray converted a penalty shot and NBC Sports Network talking head Jeremy Roenick netted a goal in the final 10 seconds.
But now it’s time for the real deal, as the Wild are trying to climb back into the playoff hunt in front of a new head coach, and the Blackhawks are trying to pad their lead the Central Division, which will never be safe. Other teams are finally catching up to the Blackhawks in terms of games played, as St. Louis has now participated in 61 games, just as Chicago has, while Dallas has 60 games played. The men in the Indian Head sit at 81 points, the Stars are at 80 and the Blues are at 79, so all points are important for the Blackhawks.
The Wild, meanwhile, tumbled to sixth in the Central before Mike Yeo was fired last week. Former Blackhawks assistant John Torchetti is now the team leader, and Minnesota has collected three wins in Torchetti’s first three outings, putting the Wild within three points of the second wild card.
Of course, this isn’t a typical game, as it will be held outside and in the middle of the day. Pictures on Twitter show the sun out bright, which could be an issue for both teams. The sun created a nasty glare during the Blackhawks’ Winter Classic game against Washington last year, and Patrick Kane was noted earlier this weekend as saying cloudy weather would be best for a good game in Minnesota. Right now, it doesn’t look like that will happen, which will especially test the goaltenders in Corey Crawford and Devan Dubnyk.
Let’s take a look at the projected lineups for each side, starting with the Blackhawks.
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjarlmarsson
Corey Crawford-Scott Darling
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To be honest, these lines could be totally different (minus the second line) by the time the puck drops. Though Joel Quenneville typically doesn’t like to change lines after a win, Wednesday’s victory against the New York Rangers was far from ideal and had a lot to do with powerplay success, not 5-on-5 success. With the White House trip Thursday and the unique setup with this being an outdoor game, practices haven’t been typical or as frequent, so it’s hard to know if the lines will be the same today as they were Wednesday. Jiri Sekac could draw back in (probably for Hinostroza), and Viktor Svedberg could return on the blue line (probably for Gustafsson).
On to the Wild.
Devan Dubnyk-Darcy Kuemper
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In theory, this group should be at least a little more successful than it has been this season. But Dubnyk returning to sub-average, as he was before his freakout half season with Minnesota in 2015, has torpedoed this team to some extent. His .917 save percentage and 2.40 goals-allowed average aren’t getting the job done. But plenty have blamed Yeo’s management of the lineup for this team’s woes, and apparently Torchetti has an early answer to that, as evidenced by three quick wins. Koivu is pacing this team in points with 42, which probably shouldn’t be the case. Suter has produced 38 points from the blue line and has a whale of a shot. Parise (36 points), Vanek (35), Coyle (31) and Granlund (31) are all over 30 points as well, and you know Haula is good for an annoying goal against the Blackhawks.
Let’s look at three Blackhawks to watch in today’s outdoor spectacle.
The captain isn’t really one of my players to watch. I just wanted to point out Toews opened a Twitter account today, and he managed to zing teammate Shaw within his first three tweets. Definitely worth a look.
As anyone who watch the Blackhawks’ four-game sweep of the Wild in last season’s playoffs, Kane has the Wild’s number. Minnesota has taken both other games between the teams this season, and as Kane goes, the Blackhawks seem to go. You know Kane gets up a little bit for games like this, and he may want to put on a bit of a show. This could be a great thing for the Blackhawks, but it also has a level of danger in Kane potentially getting too fancy at times. Still, if Kane can get things going for the Blackhawks early, the rest of the team is likely to follow. And he’s had little trouble getting things going against the Wild in the past.
Another guy who, as he goes, the Blackhawks go, is Crawford. He and Dubnyk, as I mentioned above, have a tough task in an outdoor setting. It appears sun will be a factor early, which matters as far as glare off the ice and possibly making the ice surface slower. On top of this, the Wild have some pep in their step under a new coach, and they’ll want to not only win the outdoor game they’re hosting but get a few points closer to a playoff spot. Even though Minnesota is a sub-50 percent possession team, all of those factors could equal Crow seeing a lot of rubber, and some of those chances could be a little unusual due to the outdoor elements. Crow will need to be on his game and on his angles today.
All the Blackhawks in their first outdoor game
I’m cheating here, but you’ll just have to deal with it. This isn’t just guys like Danault, Hinostroza and Rasmussen, but also guys like Panarin and Anisimov. Players who have participated in one or more outdoor game have an idea of how the puck moves differently in an outdoor setting and what they need to prepare for. Guys who have never played in an outdoor game like this don’t have that advantage. I’m sure they’ve been given pointers by the likes of Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and company, but it’ll still be interesting to see how these guys adjust — and that applies to both benches.