Chicago Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger of Sweden, left, and left wing Bryan Bickell celebrate after Bickell scored during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Minnesota Wild, Tuesday, March 5, 2013 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
After playing eight of their first 10 games against Eastern Conference opponents (and racking up a 6-0-2 record in those games), the Chicago Blackhawks will get back to work against the Central Division on Saturday night, starting a home-and-home series against the Minnesota Wild at the United Center.
The Wild have been a weirdly streaky team to start the year, reeling off two three-game losing streaks and a three game winning streak in their first nine games. They have won their last two contests though, both home games against the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes, and with Josh Harding playing some really great hockey in net, it seems as though the Wild might finally be turning a corner.
That isn’t to say that Minnesota isn’t without their problems. The Wild offense still isn’t all that great, only scoring 2.2 goals per game, and the team’s penalty killing unit is one of the worst in the NHL, allowing power play goals 25% of the time that they are short-handed.
Key to the Game: Stay Out of the Penalty Box
Staying out of the penalty box could pretty much be the key to any game that the Hawks play this season, but it is especially crucial against a team like the Wild for the Hawks to play a clean game.
There are several reasons why a well-disciplined effort is a must for Chicago. For starters, the Hawks are the proud owners of the worst penalty killing unit in the league, only killing off 71% of the power plays they’ve conceded this year. That poor effort has come in large part due to a lack of chemistry as head coach Joel Quenneville tries to find a suitable replacement for Michael Frolik, but a lack of execution of the game plan that gave the team so much success last year has also been a big factor.
Brad Mills is going to get a crack at the spot alongside Marcus Kruger on the top penalty killing unit for the Hawks, but even with new blood on that line, the Hawks have to make sure that they aren’t giving the potent Minnesota power play (currently fourth in the league, scoring 26.7% of the time) too many opportunities.
Wild Player to Watch: Dany Heatley
One of the big reasons the Wild are struggling offensively is because of the inconsistent efforts of some of their secondary scorers, and Dany Heatley is one of the primary offenders. He has one goal in 11 games for the Wild this season, and that was an empty net tally against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night.
While guys like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are both carrying the load offensively for the Wild, it’s guys like Heatley and Jason Pominville who are going to need to step up in order for them to keep pace in a Central Division that features some really strong teams at the top of the heap.
Blackhawk to Watch: Brad Mills
Mills may not see a ton of ice time with fellow fourth liners Brandon Bollig and Brandon Pirri on Saturday night, but it will be his time spent with the penalty killing unit tonight that will help determine whether or not Chicago is able to keep the Wild at bay.
Mills did have two goals and two assists in eight games with the IceHogs this season, but obviously the Hawks aren’t going to be looking for much offensive push from the 30-year old Mills, who only has played in 31 NHL games in his career, and has scored a goal and added an assist in those contests.