CHICAGO – With its 2007-08 (now-defunct) Northwest Division championship banner and No. 1 “Wild Fans” banner looking awfully lonely draping from Xcel Energy Center’s roof, the Wild would love nothing more than to win the Western Conference and Central Division.
But beyond bragging rights, there’s a more significant reason the Wild wouldn’t mind total conference supremacy following a grueling 82-game regular season.
If the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks ultimately do meet in the second round of the playoffs, the Wild wants to change things up against its rival and open at home, plus fasten the potential of a Game 7, if needed, in St. Paul.
With all their star power and three Stanley Cups in seven years, make no mistake, the Blackhawks still are the team to beat in the conference no matter where the Wild finishes. Considering the Wild went 0-8 at the United Center en route to eventually being eliminated by the Blackhawks in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 playoffs, home-ice advantage could be a prized commodity.
The Wild, three points ahead of the Blackhawks with a game in hand, could go a long way toward securing that possibility if it can close the season series with a big win Sunday morning at 11:30.
The game will be nationally-televised on NBC, and body clock-wise, it’ll feel oddly like a 10:30 a.m. start time because the clocks spring forward in Sunday’s wee hours because of daylight saving time.
“It’s going to be fun. That’s why you play,” veteran Eric Staal said. “And over the course of an 82-game season, you don’t have a ton of games that have a little extra oomph to them. You know, NBC on a Sunday, those are always ones that are watched, and we’re excited about it.
“It’s a great challenge against a very good team.”
The Wild beat Chicago for an eighth consecutive time in the regular season last time Minnesota played in Chicago on Jan. 15, but in two games last month in St. Paul, the Blackhawks won in overtime and in regulation.
The Blackhawks have lost two in a row after winning 12 of their previous 13 games.
“When you play Chicago, you want to win the game. That’s the only impression I want to leave,” coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked about the significance of the final regular-season meeting before a possible playoff meeting. “They’re going to play with the same tenacity that they played us in the first three, so it’s not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination.”
Last time the Wild faced Chicago, Boudreau went mostly with the Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund line against Chicago’s star-studded Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane line. That trio was shut down, but captain Jonathan Toews lit up the Wild for five points.
Since that meeting, the Wild acquired center Martin Hanzal, so you know Boudreau will do his best to have two shutdown lines featuring Koivu and Hanzal in the middle.
In Friday’s come-from-behind victory to beat the Florida Panthers, Boudreau uncovered four lines that churned impressively. He said if those 12 forwards continue to run like that, he’ll halt weeks’ worth of scrambling his line combinations.
Boudreau said Friday, “Believe me, I hate moving the lines around as much as we’re moving them right now,” and his hope was to settle on lines down the stretch.
One line that was outstanding was Nino Niederreiter-Staal-Charlie Coyle. The trio combined for six points (Staal had three), and Coyle had by far his best game in more than a month. After 10 games without a point, Coyle had his legs moving and he finished with nine shot attempts, an empty-net goal and an assist.
He said it was “nice to get rewarded. I haven’t had that, personally, lately.”
“We’ve got a lot of good players on this team,” Staal said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can play in a lot of different spots. So the main thing is getting the wins. But, if you can find some consistency, and some familiarity, it’s nice.
“We’re getting down to the end here, and we want to be rolling on all cylinders once we get to the playoffs. We’ll see how things shake out. But [Friday] I thought throughout the lineup that we had guys contributing all over the place.”