CHICAGO – Zach Parise is pretty positive about the way the Wild has been playing, but Minnesota’s leading scorer is also a realist and always up for a challenge.
“We haven’t seen Chicago, St. Louis, Colorado, San Jose. We haven’t seen any of those top teams yet, so for us to play these guys and see where we’re at, you can’t get a better opponent than the Blackhawks,” Parise said. “It’s still going to be the team to beat in the Western Conference.”
Saturday night at the United Center, the Wild opens up an old-fashioned home-and-home series against its new Central Division rival that concludes Monday in St. Paul. It’ll be the first time the Wild meets Chicago since it was dispatched in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
“It doesn’t feel like that long ago that we were in their building, they were coming here and we were going head-to-head in the playoffs,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Should be emotional games, should be fun games.”
Minutes before last year’s series-opening game in Chicago, veteran goalie Niklas Backstrom dropped to his knees during warmups. Backstrom had to be helped off the ice and wasn’t heard from again, suffering a season-ending sports hernia. Backstrom says “it still hurts” that he couldn’t be there for his teammates after the long road to get back in the playoffs.
Coincidentally, Backstrom’s first start since straining his right knee Oct. 8 will come Saturday in Chicago because Josh Harding, who took the reins from Backstrom last spring, suffered a “lower-body” strain in Thursday’s victory over Carolina.
The good news, Yeo said, is Harding, who has given up eight goals in nine games, was feeling better Friday and isn’t expected to be out long.
“He’s played a lot of hockey. He’s done a great job for us,” Yeo said. “It would be foolish to put him into a game if he’s not 100 percent. Backs came in and played well, so we’ll give Hards a chance to fully rest and fully recover.”
Backstrom says his knee isn’t 100 percent yet, but Yeo said, “I know what he’s capable of and he showed it [Thursday] night, so I don’t see why he can’t do it for a 60-minute game.”
Backstrom is 0-0-2 in four appearances this season with a 2.98 goals-against average and .867 save percentage. He had an average training camp, followed by a slow start to the season.
“Every time you have a surgery, it takes time,” Backstrom, 35, said. “You’re always cleared to play at some point, but it always takes time to be back to normal, to get everything where it should be. It’s still something I’m working on every day to get the strength back where it was.”
The Wild is 5-3-3 and looks to be a different team than the first two years under Yeo. With the exception of maybe Thursday’s game, the Wild typically has the puck the majority of the game.
Puck possession was its downfall last spring against Chicago.
“Our puck possession game has been really good,” Parise said. “It’s almost a little page out of [the Blackhawks’] book the way they played against us last year. So now we’ll see how well we can do it against a really good team that holds onto the puck as well.
“Faceoffs are going to be important. Last year, it felt like if they won the draw, you didn’t see the puck the rest of the shift.”
The Wild is the NHL’s third-best faceoff team in the early part of this season, while Chicago ranks 13th.
“They are well-organized and they play their defense very well. It’s a big challenge,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “We have to go in and break that. We’ve been playing a little different from last year. I think any team tries to bring something new each and every year, and so are we.
“Now we’ll see if it works against them.”
Yeo is looking forward to the challenge.
“We’ve talked a lot about what we’ve done with the puck, but our guys have done a very good job without the puck as well,” he said. “The structure of the game has been good whether it’s the D zone, whether it’s the rush, whether it’s through the neutral zone.
“But the way I see it, this is another test — this is a highly skilled group. What we saw from those guys last year is we all know what the [Patrick] Kanes and [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Sharps and Marian Hossas can do. But where I think they really hurt us last year was the depth of their team. Their third and fourth lines scoring goals and contributing offensively against us, that was problematic and something we have to be ready for.”