Tonight's 50th game of the season marks the unofficial halfway point of the year, with the All Star break looming a mere 60 (or 65) minutes of game play away. It's also the last time we'll see the Hawks on West Madison for the next 3 weeks, as they'll be embarking on a six game roadie when play resumes, not to return until February 16th. It's with that in mind that the Hawks welcome in the middling Minnesota Wild, who are coming off a 4-3 loss the Sharks, and prior to that had won three straight, but prior to that had lost three straight. Sounds kinda familar, doesn't it? Under sophomore coach Todd Richards, the Wild are still in transition from the staid, defensive game of years past to Richard's more up-tempo game with middling results. He has some nice pieces up front- Mikko Koivu is as solid a two-way center as there is in the West, and leads them in goals with 14. Old friend Martin Havlat paces the Wild in points when he's not telling agent Allan Walsh how unfair his playing time situation is. Do the indignities ever cease, Marty? Matt Cullen is also plugging along at his usual pace, producing servicable numbers as the number two centerman with 10G-20A-30P. Past those three, however, there's a lot of spare parts. John Madden makes his first visit back to the UC since last June, and is having a decent season with 15 points. The oddly named and even more oddly mustachioed Cal Clutterbuck will do what he does best, which is run around and leave his feet to check people and then not answer for his transgressions.
The blue-line is even more nondescript, with Marek Zidlicky manning the number one pairing and power play unit, though he's hurt for tonight's tilt. The rest are still adjusting to having to recover quickly and take away lanes to the opposition, as the neutral zone is no longer the Aggro-Crag it once was for Minnesota. Backstopping the whole operation as usual is Niklas Backstrom (the goalie), who has regained form after a down year last go-around, with a 2.54 GAA and a sparkling .922 save percentage. While those two stats paired together seem incongruous, keep in mind that the Wild allow a whopping 5.9 more shots than they take on average, so Backstrom is tested frequently. Their record is where it is due to the power play, 6th in the league at 21.4. As we told you last go around, Matt Cullen mans a point on the first unit and makes the whole thing hum, as 17 of his 30 points have come with the extra man. He can't be allowed too much time or space at the point tonight if the Hawks hope to get that penalty kill rate north of 80%.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, despite the outcome on Sunday, the game play from the weekend was some of the most encouraging we've seen in a while, with the Hawks pushing the pace and getting shots to the goal (albeit into Sergei Bobrovsky's gut). Marian Hossa appears to be a gametime decision as he's fallen ill (one hopes he didn't hurt his knee in the Peterborough game), but he did not skate at practice this morning. Jack Skille will also more than likely be back in the lineup, as the Wild don't really have anyone for John Scott to not intimidate at all with his 5:00 minutes of ice time. Corey Crawford gets the nod in net once again, only this time there's no reporter for Marty Turco to mock with his free time on the bench in the baseball cap. It's a pretty simple equation for tonight - skate a complete game like the Hawks did on Saturday and stay out of the box, and there should be two points there going into the break. Nearly every game is crucial from here on in, one hopes the bus isn't running already. Let's go Hawks.