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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks

The Hurricanes skate into the Central Division for two crucial tilts this week.

Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Minnesota Wild

Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild have put together another solid regular season that has them poised for yet another playoff appearance in the Western Conference. They are led by former Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, whose near point per game pace has led the Wild in being a top-ten offense in the NHL. Staal leads the Wild and is currently tied for fifth in the NHL with 34 goals and has already posted his highest goal total since the 2008-09 season, when he scored 40 in Carolina. For the rest of the Wild, the firepower has come from across the entire lineup, with ten different performers over 20 points on the season.

After spending plenty of draft pick capital last season in an effort to make a Stanley Cup run, the Wild were much quieter at this deadline as they attempt to break through in a meaningful way in the postseason with the current regime. Head coach Bruce Boudreau has continued his long history from his days in Washington, Anaheim, and Minnesota of tremendous regular season success followed by underwhelming postseason performance. With a roster that has a good mix of prime-age players and veterans, backed by a top-end goalie in Devan Dubnyk, the Wild hope for a change of fortune as they draw closer to their sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

From an offensive standpoint, Staal has provided more than the Wild could possibly have hoped for when they signed him as a free agent before the 2016-17 season. His 65 points lead the roster, while Mikael Granlund has followed up his breakout season from last year with a stellar 55 points in 61 games. The other biggest bump up in production this season has come from Jason Zucker, who has already surpassed his career highs in goals (28) and points (53) this season. Further down the lineup the Wild have received significant contributions from Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba and Jaren Spurgeon on the blueline, and from captain Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter up front.

The effort from the Wild in the offseason to add a grittier, more defensive mix to their fourth line has not provided the impact expected, as wily veteran Matt Cullen has brought his faceoff prowess to Minnesota, but not much else. The physical presence of Chris Stewart was dropped from the roster on waivers a few weeks ago, so the makeup and identity of the Wild has not received the intended face lift from the offseason.

For the Wild to advance further in the postseason, they will have to received top-shelf goal-tending from the reliable Dubnyk and find a way to avoid an offensive drought, similar to what cost them in the first round a season ago.

What to Watch For

  • As always, Canes fans will watch Eric Staal intently whenever he matches up against the Canes. In what is assuredly still an emotional time for the Staal family as a whole, seeing the two Staals likely run up against each other often on Tuesday will be an interesting matchup to watch.
  • The Wild have converted on the power play in three of their past four games. Rated as the eighth best unit in the league currently, keeping the power play off the ice will be an important part of the battle for the Canes.

Chicago Blackhawks

Thursday, 8:30 p.m. at United Center

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Los Angeles Kings Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Chicago Blackhawks will not be included in the NHL playoffs. After hovering around the playoff line until mid-January, the Blackhawks then proceeded to go on a 2-11-2 stretch through mid-February that effective relegated the Hawks to their fate.

After navigating serious salary cap issues for a number of seasons to remain a viable contender, the Hawks appear to have come to the end of the road for the current core. While Patrick Kane is certain still at the top of his game at 29-years-old, his 62 points have not been nearly enough for the attrition around him. Jonathan Toews continues to be a solid performer, though his overall production has flattened out over the past several seasons. With other core members such as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook now well beyond 30, and showing signs of regression, the Hawks were unable to overcome their drops in production as well as down seasons from the re-acquired Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov.

One of the other factors in the faltering in Chicago has been the ongoing injuries to Corey Crawford. While Scott Darling has had issues in Carolina of his own, this season has seen the Hawks with little answer in the 39 contests that Crawford was unable to play to date. Crawford has posted a solid .929 save percentage in 27 starts, while his primary backups Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass have combined for just a .903 save percentage in 37 combined starts.

For their part, the management team in Chicago attempted to create some space and some draft capital at the deadline as they were able to ship out Tommy Wingels and Ryan Hartman for a combined haul of three picks (a first and third-rounder for Hartman, a fifth-rounder for Wingels). Hard decisions will continue for the Chicago front office as the team will still have only small amounts of money to spend compared to other rivals in free agency, but now will not have the impressive level of success to point to in order to convince players to hop on board.

If the Hurricanes are going to hang around the playoff cut line, winning against an unexpectedly poor Blackhawk team that is simply playing out the string is an absolute must.

What to Watch For

  • The Blackhawks have performed poorly on the man advantage all season, rating 28th in the league at 15.81%, but have created a wealth of opportunities, having received the second-most power play opportunities in the league with 234. While the Hawks may not be dangerous, staying out of the box is important to continue the flow of the game for the Canes and maximize their own offensive opportunities.
  • Expect to see Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce sent out as often as possible against Patrick Kane, even if Bill Peters doesn’t have last change. Big minutes will be logged on Thursday by the top pair.