Marian Hossa #81 of the Chicago Blackhawks talks with teammate Brent Seabrook #7 before a face-off against the Minnesota Wild at the United Center on February 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.
Well, this wasn't supposed to be a top of standings clash. But it is.
The Hawks face the West's leader and next year's division rival in the Minnesota Wild. The Wild were predicted by lots to maybe be the worst team in the conference, and they've flipped that on its head.
They played Tuesday night at the arena of another future division opponent in the form of Winnipeg, losing 2-1 after giving up a late power play goal. They still hold a three point lead on the Hawks for top of the West, so the Hawks can't catch them. However, Minny has played one game more.
How have the Wild done it? Putting up Lady Luck at The Ritz-Carlton and showering her with jewelry would have to be a part of it. Every metric anyone would use shows a middling hockey team at best. The Wild give up the most shots per game in the league, and they also block the most, which means the other team has the puck for long stretches. They're 24th in goal scoring in the league.
Their special teams are middle of the pack, basically.
But they have three goalies with save-percentages over .930. They keep a lot of those shots to the outside, and don't allow a lot of rebound chances. They've gone back to the old Wild ways of clogging the neutral zone. The attempted switch over the past couple years to a more attacking team didn't work because they didn't have the personnel. But they do have it to play a conservative, suffocating system, and new coach Mike Yeo has returned to that. He also gets them to skate every shift like their job depends on it. If you play hard, don't leave a lot of space, and get some other wordly goaltending, you can win games in this league.
For the Hawks, Ray Emery gets the start. Apparently, John Scott will also be inserted into the lineup for five minutes of hoping he doesn't fall down or actually have to do anything before returning to the bench for the last 40 minutes of the game where he can yap all he likes. And I'll continue to just be at a loss for words.
It's the same plan the Hawks have had against the Predators or Coyotes. They can't try and be cute in the neutral zone. They're going to have to be patient. The Wild defense isn't actually the biggest, it's more swift. so the Hawks are going to have to get the puck behind them and not shirk being physical with them. They can't make mistakes in their own zone, it's the only way the Wild can consistently score. No passes from a standing still position to another player standing still. Crisp passes, and quickly done. You've heard it all before. It's just a question of if you see it.
Sam Fels is the proprietor of The Committed Indian, an unofficial program for the Blackhawks. You may have seen him hocking the magazine outside the United Center at Gate 3. The program is also available for purchase online. Fels is a lifelong 'Hawks fan and he also writes for Second City Hockey .