When Chicago comes to Xcel Energy Center on Friday, the Blackhawks will be missing some of the players who tormented the Wild in the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Forwards Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad were traded last summer, and defenseman Johnny Oduya signed with Dallas. Defenseman Duncan Keith, out because of a knee injury, won’t be here, either.
Not that it matters. While the Blackhawks may have a slightly different cast, the Wild expects to see little change from the team that steamrolled it on the way to the Stanley Cup last spring. With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford and Marian Hossa still setting the tone, coach Mike Yeo and his players are preparing for a typically rigorous test against the team that has dealt them 12 losses in 15 postseason games since 2013.
Though the Blackhawks have eliminated the Wild from the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, Yeo said the past will not be a factor in the teams’ first meeting this season. Friday’s game is all about gaining two critical points against a Central Division rival. His players didn’t disagree, but their excitement about the rematch was clear after Thursday’s practice.
“It gives us extra motivation, for sure,” winger Jason Pominville said. “But it’s about finding a way to beat them. If you want to win in the [Western Conference], you’ll probably have to get past those guys.
“They’ve lost guys, but the guys they’ve added are pretty good players. They find ways to make adjustments and find ways to win every year. It’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to do.”
After winning their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, the Blackhawks faced salary-cap constraints that forced them to remake the roster. Saad ended up in Columbus, and Sharp joined Oduya in Dallas. Free-agent centers Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette also moved on, and forward Kris Versteeg was traded to Carolina.
Those holes did not go unfilled. The Saad trade brought them center Artem Anisimov, who has fit in well on the second line with Kane and rookie Artemi Panarin. Over the team’s first nine games, that trio accounted for 10 of the Hawks’ 19 goals.
Yeo said the culture built by stout leaders such as Toews gives the Blackhawks enough stability to withstand the inevitable roster shifts. “It’s a proud group,” he said of Chicago, whom the Wild will play Feb. 21 at TCF Bank Stadium in its first outdoor game. “It’s a group that’s not satisfied with past success and certainly not willing to give in to any excuses.
“You can continue to move pieces in and out. But when you’ve got the main group that’s there, and they’re the ones that are still driving the bus, then a new group comes in, and they’ve got that winning culture. The people that come in have really no choice but to get on board.”
Though the Wild has had little success against Chicago in the playoffs, it holds the upper hand in regular-season play. It has a 32-22-3 edge in the series after going 2-3 against the Blackhawks last season.
The past 15 games have been particularly close; the Wild has compiled an 8-6-1 record, with eight of those games decided by one goal and four ending in shootouts.
Pominville noted that regular-season victories against a rival can build confidence that carries over to the playoffs. On the other hand, Charlie Coyle cautioned that the Wild will have to forget about its postseason futility against the Hawks as the teams play the first of five regular-season games.
“We can’t dwell on the past,” Coyle said. “I guess it can get in your head if you think about it, but you’ve just got to throw it away.
“We’re a better team this time around. We like what we have in this locker room. We can beat them. We’ve done it before. We just have to put that in our heads, go in with a clean slate and play our game.”
Graovac still out
Forward Tyler Graovac (lower body injury) was on the ice as the Wild began practice on Thursday, but he didn’t last long. Graovac, who has missed eight games, left the workout early.
Yeo said he wasn’t sure whether Graovac’s recovery has been set back or whether he was merely feeling sore. He is certain, though, that the rookie’s return is not imminent.
“It shows that he’s not near close to being back in the lineup for us,” Yeo said.