The Chicago Blackhawks visit Minnesota Tuesday night as the first team in the 2012 – 2013 season to clinch a playoff spot while the Wild hope to gain traction to clinch a playoff berth.
After a seven-game win streak and 11 – 4 – 0 record throughout the month of March, the Wild have dropped three of their last four games and fell from first to second place behind the Vancouver Canucks. General Manager Chuck Fletcher hoped to solve some of the issues troubling the Wild offensively by acquiring winger Jason Pominville from Buffalo shortly before the trade deadline, who has 2 points (1G, 1A) through his first two games in Minnesota.
Minnesota is hot off a shutout performance in Columbus from Niklas Backstrom that put an end to their three game skid and look to capitalize on that performance using the acquisition of Pominville stacked with a tight blue line to make a playoff push. Boasting 46 points through 38 games, the Wild are four points out of first place in the Northwest Division and 6th in the West, just one point behind San Jose. Minnesota has nine games left after tonight’s bid against Chicago and it looks like they will need at least five wins if they want to secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Chicago became the first team to clinch of playoff berth this season in a win over Nashville on Sunday in the United Center, it’s third victory against the Predators last week alone. After a skid in March that saw the record-breaking Blackhawks go 9 – 5 – 0, Chicago seems to have gotten right back on the horse again and grab some momentum before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The return of the injured Marian Hossa, who missed 7 games, and the elevated play of Michael Frolik and Brandon Saad have allowed the Blackhawks to return to proper form the NHL saw in the first half of the season.
Brandon Saad has scored 20 points (6G, 14A) in his last 19 games this season and ranks third among rookies in points – making him a legitimate candidate for the Calder Trophy. Frolik was honored with the opportunity to skate with Saad on the first line with Jonathan Toews, which saw his skill rise as he joined three other Blackhawks in the top 10 takeaway leaders in the league.
Chicago and Minnesota have split the two games played this season, each team winning on home ice. Minnesota goaltender Niklas Backstrom posts a 3.07 GAA against Chicago this season, including two goals on four shots at the Xcel Energy Center in January. Head Coach Joel Quenneville told media members this morning that Ray Emery, who has not faced Minnesota this season, will get the nod in net tonight. Emery has posted career-high numbers this season, including a 12 – 0 – 0 record to start the season and posting 3 shutouts all season.
Without a doubt, the biggest story tonight comes as Joel Quenneville told the media this morning that Patrick Sharp will return to the lineup Tuesday night after missing nearly a month with an upper-body injury. Sharp expressed his frustrating earlier this week, saying that he had been skating with full-contact clearance and he felt good. It’s possible that Q did not push Sharp because of the lack of playoff worry, which was present last season. Now that the 31 year-old winger is fully healthy and cleared for contact, Chicago can just about get back to its full, healthy form.
Dave Bolland did not make the trip and is out tonight in Minnesota since sustaining a lower-body injury after blocking a puck against Nashville. Center Matt Cullen is out for tonight with a lower-body injury (his fourth consecutive game) and Dany Heatly is not expected to play after missing two games with an upper-body injury.