Wild Host Blackhawks in Battle of NHL Division Leaders

The Minnesota Wild (20-8-3) have surprised the NHL Hockey community by posting the best record after 30 games played, but will get a big challenge on home ice tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks (18-8-4), in an excellent showdown between the Western Conference’s Northwest and Central Division leaders.

Although the Wild haven’t dominated any one particular area of the hockey this season, balance has been the key to Minnesota’s ascension to the top of the NHL leader board. While only averaging 2.5 goals per contest (24th in the league), and beating opponents by just 1 goal for 13 of their 20 wins this year, the Wild have excelled at bringing all their pieces together night after night, relying on a well-balanced offense and a solid defense to pull them through tight situations, and playing equally well at home as they do on the road (10-4-1 at home, 10-4-2 away). Despite a 2-1 loss yesterday to the Winnipeg Jets that ended a franchise record 7-game winning streak, heading into tonight’s contest with the Blackhawks the Wild sit on 12 wins in their last 15 games played, but will face another team that has excelled at clutching up during crunch time and squeezing out wins. Key to the Wild’s performance tonight will be who sits in goal for them, either the mainstay Niklas Backstrom, who has been battling back from a groin injury, or his fill-in, rookie Matt Hackett who had filled in admirably during Backstrom’s three-game absence (going 2-0-0 with a 1.01 goals against average). Backstrom and the Wild both admittedly haven’t had much success recently against Chicago, losing six of eight with Backstrom posting a 1-4-0 record with a 3.56 GAA in his last 6 starts against them, so it’s as of yet unclear who will get the start in net for tonight’s game (especially with Backstrom having to play back-to-back nights after injury if he starts tonight’s game). However, this is a completely new look Wild team heading into the first of four meetings against Chicago this year, and undoubtedly one of the top items on their checklist will be paying back the Blackhawks for their success against Minnesota in the past few seasons.

For Chicago, there is a similar goalie conundrum this evening, as starting goalie Corey Crawford has been out of form and finds himself being replaced for back-up net minder Ray Emery. This position is certainly familiar for Emery, who filled in most admirably as a back-up during his days with the Anaheim Ducks. Starting for the third straight game tonight and his fourth straight appearance in a Chicago game, Emery has posted an outstanding 3-0-1 record with a 1.57 GAA, but hasn’t faced the Wild in over 5 years. One thing to note with Emery though; it seems the more he plays, the better he gets. While that seems to be simple knowledge applicable across any sport for any player, for a starting goalie in the NHL, it’s essential to giving a team a chance to win. Facing a Wild team that doesn’t produce a ton of shots (29th in the league with 26.1/game), Emery’s chances look good from the get-go, but it’ll be up to the Chicago defensemen to improve their play in tonight’s game, as they come in ranking 20th in the league allowing 3 goals/game, and 27th on the penalty kill at %77.4. The Wild may not be an aggressive, high-scoring offense this season but they are opportunistic, and are bolstered by a solid defense that has only allowed 3 goals on one occasion in their last 15 games. Chipping through that defense that is only allowing 2.1 goals /game and is 9th best on the penalty kill at 86 percent will be a key to Chicago’s game this evening, as will be getting plenty of shots on net regardless of who is in goal for Minnesota.

Ranked 4th in the league at 33.3 shots/game at 3.2 goals per contest as well as utilizing their 9th-ranked power play to capitalize on the man advantage, while the Blackhawks are less of an opportunistic squad, they certainly know how to muscle opposing teams around and keep the puck in opposing zones. That offensive aggression starts with Jonathan Toews, Chicago’s leading scorer with 17 goals and 32 points, but it’s the overall scoring depth that has contributed to the Blackhawks’ place at the top of their division this season. While many teams would be happy to have just one player over 30 points this season (there are only 19 players over the mark currently), Chicago already has 4, as alongside Toews sits Patrick Kane (31 points), Marian Hossa (31 points), and Patrick Sharp (31 points). What’s equally impressive is their puck distribution, with 6 players on the roster posting 15 or more assists on the year, which has given opposing defenses a tough assignment trying to contain the Chicago passing game. Getting lots of passing, lots of shots and success on the power play, the Blackhawks will certainly be a formidable challenge for the Minnesota defense tonight, and against a team that produces so many scoring chances, the Wild will need their key players to step up and generate some offense of their own, or face spending a lot of time in their zone trying to chase the puck as it moves from one top scorer to another.

For Minnesota on offense, balance has once again prevailed over a hedged bet on a few talented players, as while no player on the team has more than 10 goals or 30 points, 9 players have at least 12 points so far this season, and contributions can come from any part of the line-up on any given night. Bolstered this year by the off-season acquisitions of Dany Heatley (9 goals, 21 points) and Devin Setoguchi (8 goals, 13 points), a once anemic Minnesota scoring offense has found just enough support to help them pull through close games, and has found their improving defense to be just as important for the bottom line as is their scoring presence. Mikku Koivu (27 points) has undoubtedly been a team leader for the Wild and with points in the last 5 straight games, he’ll look to continue his solid recent form into tonight’s match-up with the Blackhawks. However more importantly for Minnesota tonight is the status of Pierre-Marc Bouchard (18 points), who helps to set-up the Wild scoring front (13 assists), and is listed as day-to-day. Although taking the ice in warm-ups this afternoon, Bouchard will be a game-time decision, and his presence will be invaluable matching up against one of the best scoring offenses in the league.

Betting Lines at Oddsmaker.ag for Chicago Blackhawks vs. Minnesota Wild

Though Minnesota is at home tonight looking for a bounce back from their first loss in 8 games, the Wild enter the contest as a +130 underdog, given the offensive threat of Chicago that enters their building. Despite the underdog status, bookmakers are picking this to be a close match-up, with -1.5 goals on the spread going to the Wild (-240 odds), and +1.5 goals for Chicago (+200 odds) at Oddsmaker.ag today. What’s perhaps the most interesting here though is the low over/under at 5 goals, especially considering both teams’ recent form. While Minnesota specifically has been good at shutting down opposing offenses to get them through games, both teams enter tonight’s game scoring more than 3 goals in 5 of their last 6 contests. Thus, there is a lot of focus on the goalie situation for the over/under bottom line; with Emery in goal for Chicago and playing well, a low-shooting, low-scoring night for the Wild could work towards an under wager on total points. However, if Chicago can get scoring going early against either Niklas Backstrom or the young Matt Hackett (who hasn’t experienced a major setback yet during his NHL debut…), the over bet could be clipped as both teams battle back and forth for the lead and pressure opposing defenses.

Our Pick to Win:

There’s no doubt that this game featuring two of the best teams in the NHL will be a hotly contested affair, making it an uncertain choice for many at the top online sportsbooks reviewed here. Nonetheless, with Chicago riding a hot goalie and coming into tonight’s match-up with one of the best arrays of scorers in the league, Minnesota will have a tough time keeping up and stopping all of the Chicago shots generated, even if their defense plays at a top level against them. However, with Chicago’s defense not nearly as talented this season as their offense is, the Wild could squeak by in this match-up if they can pressure the Blackhawks defense and convert on the man advantage when they have the opportunity. The bottom line in this match-up still remains though; Ray Emery is a proven back-up on a hot streak, while Minnesota is force to choose between a veteran goalie (Backstrom) who has not fared well against Chicago, and a rookie who hasn’t experienced an onslaught of top scorers like Chicago has in his career. In a well fought game, look for Chicago to prevail tonight on their more talented offense and better goalie in net, and score a 4-2 win in the closing seconds as the Wild pull their net minder for an extra attacker and inevitably get burned for it.



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