For three straight years, the Minnesota Wild have been eliminated from the playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks.
This five-game season sweep of the Blackhawks doesn't make up for that, but for the Wild, it sure felt good.
Jared Spurgeon, Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter scored in the third period to lift surging Minnesota to a 4-1 victory over Chicago on Tuesday night, stretching the Wild's season-high winning streak to six straight games.
"When you have that confidence going into the playoffs, if you do happen to play in them, it's huge," Spurgeon said.
Marian Hossa had the goal for the Blackhawks, the 499th of his career. The Blackhawks played without their two top defensemen, because of an illness for Brent Seabrook and then a first-period match penalty on Duncan Keith for swinging his stick at Charlie Coyle.
"They play really hard, especially in this building. We have to give them credit. They had our number this year," Hossa said.
The Blackhawks have clinched their spot in the playoffs, but they fell to 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. They snagged only one point in five games against the Wild, in a shootout loss at home last week.
"It's not fun to look back and have a record like that against a team in your division, especially a team like Minnesota," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "It's not something we're happy about."
Jarret Stoll scored with the first on-target shot of the night for the Wild, who added an empty-netter from Niederreiter at the end while improving to 15-6-1 in 22 games under interim coach John Torchetti. Strengthening their hold on the second wild-card spot, the Wild stretched their lead over Colorado to five points with five games to play. Four of those for the Wild are against teams below the cut for the playoffs.
Forgetting for a moment about that 3-12 record in the postseason, the Wild are 13-6-1 in their last 20 games against the Blackhawks.
"We should know how to play them. Now if we get a chance and are fortunate enough to make the playoffs, that's got to be our marker," Torchetti said.
Said Haula: "It's fun right now, but we know what's happened in the postseason. It's a different animal. We're just trying to get in right now."
Spurgeon's career-high 11th goal was set up by a slick lead pass from Mikko Koivu that the Minnesota captain maneuvered around Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Spurgeon caught up to the puck, made a quick move to his right and went left to tap in the winner between goalie Scott Darling's arm and leg.
Chicago's depleted defense faded down the stretch. Hjalmarsson and Trevor Van Riemsdyk converged on Niederreiter on the right wing, before a pass to the wide-open Haula streaking down the middle. Van Riemsdyk peeled off too late, and Haula backhanded the puck between Darling's pads for his fourth goal and ninth point in the last nine games.
Devan Dubnyk stopped 19 shots to improve to 11-1-1 in his last 13 decisions. He's 59-31-8 for the Wild since arriving in a Jan. 14, 2015, trade with Arizona.
Darling made 18 saves for the Blackhawks, who've been without regular goalie Corey Crawford for the last seven games because of an upper-body injury. They were already without Seabrook for the first time in four years. Then they lost Keith, who was knocked onto his back before whacking Coyle in the nose with a blood-drawing blow. Keith was immediately ejected for what the officials determined was intent to injure.
As for a possible suspension?
"We miss guys all year long, so I'm not worrying about hypotheticals," coach Joel Quenneville said.
The Blackhawks failed to score on three power plays, falling to 0 for 26 over their last nine games. They had more success on their penalty kill, when Toews set up Hossa for a short-handed score.
The Wild have killed 27 of their last 28 penalties, spanning the last 11 games.