Blackhawks Buzz: January 23, 2014 at Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild have been shut out twice in their last four games, including a 4-0 blanking on Tuesday at Dallas, but help is on the way for the league’s 27th-ranked offense: Winger Zach Parise will most likely re-join his team tonight against the Blackhawks tonight after missing 14 games with a broken foot. Parise ranks second on the Wild with 15 goals and fourth with 27 points in 37 games, and his return should mitigate the loss of captain Mikko Koivu earlier this month to an ankle fracture and add some much-needed scoring punch to the top line.
Minnesota has enjoyed strong goaltending over the last few seasons from veteran duo Nicklas Backstrom and 2013 Masterton Trophy winner Josh Harding, but even after injuries hit, the quality of the team’s netminding hasn’t suffered. With Harding on injured reserve and Backstrom playing inconsistently this season, 2009 sixth-round pick Darcy Kuemper has started six of the Wild’s last eight games, posting a 4-2-0 record with a .932 save percentage and one shutout.
Some things do get better with age, and one of those is Marian Hossa, who has compiled eight points (6G, 2A) over a season-long six-game point streak, including a goal against Edmonton on his 35th birthday; his three-game goal streak is also a season long. Hossa has reached the 20-goal mark in 13 seasons of his career; in fact, the only two full seasons where he has not reached that plateau were his rookie year of 1998-99 and last year’s lockout-shortened campaign. Among active players, the Slovakia native ranks fourth with 455 NHL goals and seventh with 978 points. Might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but for Hossa, the old tricks are working just fine.
Another player who has been on top of his game lately is fourth-line center Marcus Kruger, who scored his fifth goal of the season last night in Chicago's 5-4 shootout loss at Detroit and now has six points (1G, 5A) in his last eight contests. The 2009 fifth-round draft pick, who will attend his first Olympic Games with Team Sweden next month, went 12-for-14 at the dot against the Red Wings, posting a season-high 85.7 percent of his draws. Kruger ranks second on the team (behind Jonathan Toews) and ninth in the league with a 57.1 faceoff percentage this season, a marked improvement from last year's 46.2 percent and a big reason why Head Coach Joel Quenneville has entrusted him with the majority of the team's defensive-zone draws this season: He and his linemates Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith have started around half of their shifts in their own end, according to ExtraSkater.com.
After losing a franchise-record six straight games to close out 2013, the Wild seem to have turned things around, going 7-3-0 in January despite several big names being shelved for much of that time. Chicago, meanwhile, recently notched two statement victories over conference-topping teams after a shaky start to the calendar year; they beat the Anaheim Ducks 4-2 last Friday and edged the Boston Bruins 3-2 in a matinee shootout on Sunday. Minnesota has played well against the Blackhawks, though, winning two of their previous three matchups this season, and with Chicago coming off a 65-minute effort at Detroit last night, they will be battling both fatigue and a spirited opponent.
As a team, Minnesota has made drastic improvements since last season by implementing a possession-oriented offense instead of a dump-and-chase mindset that did not match well against some of the faster teams in the Central Division. They are still missing a few key pieces through injury, but possess enough skill throughout their lineup to make life difficult. The Blackhawks are at full health and seem to score at will, and matched against a struggling Wild offense, a three-spot might be enough to bag two points.