In the only NHL viewing option of the night, a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild has division-race implications
Ultimately, we’ve learned in recent years that winning a division title isn’t a prerequisite to hoist the Stanley Cup. Though the Chicago Blackhawks have done so twice (in 2010 and 2013), the 2014 outfit was probably the league’s second-best team, and the 2015 squad won the Cup. Neither of those teams won the Central Division.
And yet, it certainly helps when you start down the long and arduous playoff road. You can get home-ice advantage through at least two stages of the postseason, if not more, if you capture a divisional crown.
The Blackhawks are currently not in position to achieve either of those goals, as they sit six points back on the Minnesota Wild with the Wild holding two games in hand. So if the Blackhawks are serious about taking back the division title for the first time since 2013, winning in regulation tonight is critical.
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Now if you want to treat this game like a playoff game, I won’t stop you. I’ll enjoy watching this contest, especially with it being the only game on the NHL schedule tonight, but I’m not treating it as an end-all-be-all moment for the Blackhawks’ 2016-17 season.
Still, this is a crucial game so far as deciding how long the Blackhawks could get home ice in the postseason. With a sketchy defense last season, we learned how important that was. How important is it going to be this postseason? We won’t know until well down the road.
But here’s the basics. The Blackhawks have won two straight, but haven’t looked impressive for most of the 2017 calendar year. The Wild have lost a whopping five games since Dec. 3, which is absolutely insane. It’s got them atop the Western Conference with games in hand on any real contenders.
Chicago Blackhawks’ projected lineup
Not much changing here. The only two switches are Hinostroza drawing back into the lineup after Jordin Tootoo got in his useless once-a-month fight Saturday, and Kempny drawing in for Gustav Forsling after the latter had a strong offensive, yet weak defensive showing against Dallas.
Toews earlier this week expressed dismay at not being able to form any real chemistry with a line due to coach Joel Quenneville‘s constant shuffling. I definitely get what he’s saying, and I don’t know that either Schmaltz or Panik will be on the top line come playoff time. (I would honestly doubt it, in both cases.)
But that line needs to at least hold at bay whatever Wild line it gets matched up against tonight. Especially because the Wild are getting scoring from all four of their lines right now.
Q was wise to get Tootoo out of the lineup tonight, as now the Blackhawks have four lines that can all conceivably produce goals. And believe it or not, it might not be as impossible as you’d think in this game.
On defense, getting Kempny in was smart as well. The Wild have been scoring at a fast and furious rate, with their 125 even-strength goals this season second in the league to Washington’s 127. Having a defensively-stout blueliner like Kempny in the lineup makes tons of sense. Let’s just hope Q doesn’t bench him for failing clear the puck at 45-degree angle or something ridiculous.
Minnesota Wild’s projected lineup
Da Windy City
If you want to understand how comfortable the Wild are with how they’re playing and their current spot in the Western Conference, look no further than their two lineup changes from Tuesday’s win in Winnipeg.
The bigger of the two would be easy Vezina Trophy favorite Dubnyk getting the night off, according to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, in favor of Kuemper. Dubnyk has been astonishingly good, with 29 wins, a .933 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average in 41 starts. Kuemper, meanwhile, carries a .907/3.16 statline into tonight’s game.
The other change is Olofsson, who will be taking part in his second NHL game, slotting in for Mike Reilly, with Reilly in fact getting sent to the AHL’s Iowa Wild after last night’s game. That’s more of a product of the Wild working some youngsters into the lineup than Reilly being awful.
But both of these moves are there for the Blackhawks to exploit. Olofsson can be hidden by coach Bruce Boudreau if necessary since Minnesota is at home, but Kuemper is going to have to stand up to the test.
And just so you don’t think Dubnyk is seeing 15 shots a game and making easy saves, the Wild are the league’s seventh-worst possession team at even strength this season (47.88 percent Corsi-for; the Blackhawks are at 50.61, for reference). This team is beatable, it’s just about making the goaltender work. And Kuemper is more likely to make mistakes than Dubnyk.
For the Blackhawks, a bigger deal is going to be making the Wild work for their shots. They have plenty of capable offensive producers — Granlund (48), Staal (42), Coyle (41), Niederreiter (38), Zucker (38), Koivu (38), Pominville (31) and Suter (30) are all at 30 points or more this season. But they don’t create a whole lot of opportunities, their 1,539 shots across all situations ranked 23rd in the league.
TV listings and prediction
Game time: 7 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: WGN 720-AM
Live stream: NBC Sports Network App
Radio stream: WGN Radio App
Prediction: The idea of a team “wanting it” being the difference between victory and defeat, especially in the NHL, is pretty silly. However, if the Blackhawks show up tonight more than they have in a majority of their games the past month, they have a good chance to win. (I don’t consider “wanting it” and “showing up” the same thing.)
The Blackhawks have been off three days, while the Wild are on the second end of a back-to-back in which they had to travel. (Though, as Twitter pointed out, the Blackhawks have lost three of four games this season after three days of rest). The Wild are using their backup goaltender, while the Blackhawks have Crow.
And I don’t necessarily think the Wild are all that concerned about losing this game in any format, considering how good things have been going and that they’ll have games in hand on the Blackhawks seemingly until the end of time. It’s a perfect opportunity for the Blackhawks to swoop in and pick up two points.
I think this is going to be a tightly contested game the Blackhawks pull out by a 2-1 margin. Haula is going to score a stupid goal by blowing past TVR or something, but Kane (duh) and Hartman will dent the twine for Chicago.