NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild at 7:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.
The game of the night in the NHL on Sunday is in Chicago where divisional foes the Blackhawks and Wild meet for the first time this season.
It just so happens to be for the top spot in the Central.
For the Wild, they come into the game as one of the hottest teams in the NHL thanks to their current run dating back to the start of December that has seen then go 16-1-2 in their past 19 games. When the month of December started the Wild were in third place in the division and eight points back of Chicago. Since then they have completely eliminated that gap and raced to the top of the standings even though they enter Sunday’s game having played four fewer games than the Blackhawks on the season.
They are doing it with a balanced scoring attack that has been led by an offensive resurgence from Eric Staal, who has turned out to be one of the best offseason pickups in the entire league this year, and the continued dominance of Devan Dubnyk in net as he plays his way to the front of the pack in the Vezina Trophy discussion.
It has also been a tremendous debut season for first-year coach Bruce Boudreau who has his eyes set on yet another division title.
Say what you want about his postseason record, especially when it comes to Game 7’s, but no matter where Boudreau goes you can pretty much guarantee that his team is going to be in the running for a division crown after winning one in eight of his first nine seasons as an NHL head coach with two different teams (Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks). The only year he did not win a division was the 2011-12 season that he split with the Capitals and Ducks. Given where the Wild are in the standings at this point, thanks in large part to this 19 game run where they have collected 34 out of a possible 39 points, they are in the driver’s seat to give him another one with a third team.
That is part of what makes games like Sunday’s game so big for both teams. If they remain on their current point paces the rest of the season, the Wild would finish the season with 117 points, while the Blackhawks would only get to 107. The x-factor in that is that they have all four of their head-to-head meetings in the second half. What happens in those games could play a big role in determining who ends up on top.
From the Blackhawks side, it is going to be interesting to see how they respond on Sunday after what was perhaps their worst game of the season on Friday night in Washington where they were blown out, 6-0, by a Capitals team that is running over everybody at the moment.
After the game Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews was, in the words of Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun Times, “fuming” after the game. Even though the Blackhawks have continued to win this season it has been a tough year for Toews after missing some time due to injury and having what is currently the worst offensive season of his career. With 21 points in 36 games he is currently on pace for 43 points in 72 games this season.
But while his scoring has experienced a drop, other forwards on the team are picking up the slack, especially when it comes to Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Both players enter play on Sunday among the top-10 in the league in scoring, while both have been on a roll over the past few weeks. Panarin has 19 points in his past 16 games, while Kane has 18 over the same stretch.