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Preview: Central Division rivals Wild and Blackhawks go head-to-head

The Wild and Blackhawks are facing off in their last games before the All-Star break.

Minnesota Wild v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

After a home and home matchup on January 21 and 22, the Minnesota Wild are back playing the Chicago Blackhawks, and this time it’s on the TNT broadcast!

The Wild are headed back to the Windy City in their last contest before the All-Star festivities begin for the selected players to go like forward Kirill Kaprizov and goaltender Cam Talbot. They’ve won the first two games of the four-game season series, with the last one coming on an overtime goal by Marcus Foligno.

Unfortunately, the Wild won’t have Foligno or Matt Dumba on the roster for the match due to upper-body injuries. Per Michael Russo of The Athletic, the Wild are “being extra cautious with Foligno,” and Dumba is day-to-day.

The Wild are 27-10-3 in the 2021-22 season, and they sit third in the Central Division standings. They’re tied with the St. Louis Blues in total points, but the Wild have four games in hand, so they get the advantage. In points percentage, they are second in the Western Conference and the Central Division with .713. They are one of only two teams in the West and six teams overall to have above a .700 points percentage mark. In their last 10 games, they have an 8-1-1 record, so they’re coming in extremely hot.

On the other end, the Blackhawks have not had a great season. They have been better without Jeremy Colliton behind the bench, but they still own a 16-22-7 record and are the second-worst team in the Central Division. They’re only ahead of the Arizona Coyotes for apparent reasons.

In the last five games, Kaprizov (8) and Dylan Strome (7) are the Wild and Blackhawks’ leading scorers respectively. One player who has been hot for the visiting Wild is goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen. Even though he isn’t slated to start, his play has been lights out over the recent stretch of games. He’s been a key factor in the Wild’s winning ways, and so have players like Kevin Fiala and Matt Boldy. They have managed to find instant chemistry, and if they can continue to build confidence before the break, it would be huge for the Wild after it.

There’s a lot to look for in this matchup between two Central Division rivals, and it should be fun to see two teams with big names on offense go at each other for the third time this season.

Burning Questions

Can Mats Zuccarello pick up where he left off?

Despite not having a point against the New York Islanders, ending a 10-game point streak, Zuccarello has been one of the Wild’s best players in 2021-22. It’s been an infrequent occurrence that Minnesota plays a game, and Zuccarello doesn’t have an impact in some way on the score sheet, whether it’s an assist or a goal. Whether or not he can get back on there tonight is something I will be focusing on. With Kaprizov and Ryan Hartman on his line, it would be shocking to see them not convert on a few chances against a notably weak defensive team in the Blackhawks.

Can Boldy keep up his point-scoring?

As mentioned earlier, the young rookie has had a record-breaking run in the points column with Fiala on his wing. In fact, Boldy set a Wild rookie record—previously set by Kaprizov—for earning nine points in nine games. After getting injured before the regular season started and having to sit and wait while the Wild went on a tear through the league, he’s getting the opportunity to prove himself. He’s doing just that.

Boldy has been able to control the pace and keep calm under pressure like not many rookies who enter the league can do. He has become a legitimate threat at the NHL level, and plenty of it has to do with his ability, but some of it also has to do with trust. Head coach Dean Evason said that he would be playing top minutes and on the power play from the outset. If that doesn’t convey trust, I don’t know what does.

How can Nico Sturm and Jon Merrill impact the lineup?

Although the Wild will be without Foligno and Dumba for the inter-divisional matchup, they get Nico Sturm and Jon Merrill back for some game action before a brief break. Sturm has been a key part of the Wild’s penalty kill, ranking 15th in the NHL. However, in his absence, it hasn’t been the same. Merrill has been one of the team’s best defensemen, but he’s been somewhat underrated by many outside of the Wild’s sphere. Getting both of these players will be great for confidence in the defensive end at even-strength and on the penalty kill, even though other players aren’t playing.