The top two teams in the Western Conference have achieved their status in completely different ways. Chicago has done it with offense, the Wild with defense.
To consider: Minnesota ranks third in the league in goals-allowed-per-game (2.10) while the Hawks rank fourth in scoring (3.20). The Wild are 22nd in offense (2.50) but the Hawks are 20th in defense (2.97).
The styles are different but the records are similar. The Hawks are 18-8-4 while the Wild is 20-7-3. Something has to give.
“They have good balance it seems like,” Viktor Stalberg said after practice Tuesday. “Their coach seems to be having them work as one. A lot of time that’s stronger than individual stars, though they have some of those too.”
Not many though. Dany Heatley is a known name and Hawks fans should know Devin Setoguchi from his days with the San Jose Sharks. Maybe the Wild will be better known in Chicago when they join the Hawks in their new conference next season.
“They have a good young team,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a fun place to play. When that format is in place next year it will be very competitive.”
The game marks a return to the area for Andrew Brunette, who played for the Wild during two different stints totaling six seasons, including the previous three before joining the Hawks.
“It’s kind of back to where it was for the first eight or nine years of their existence,” Brunette said. “They’re going to play a very disciplined, strong defensive game. They’ll rely on their special teams, their goaltending and the other team to cheat a little bit and they’ll make you pay.”
It sounds like the type of game Patrick Kane wouldn’t like but he claims the opposite.
“I think sometimes with teams like that, they kind of sit back and give you a little bit more room in the neutral zone and sometimes you can skate through them and try to break the trap,” Kane said. “Sometimes it gets you into the game a little bit. But I feel like I’ve had some good games against a team like that, that’s played pretty much the same style for a while. So I’m hoping for another one.”
Hearing Bickell and Quenneville talk about what he needs to do to be more of a factor in games gives a feeling of déjà vu. It’s all been said before.
“With his speed, size and presence he should be more of a factor,” Quenneville said. “We need to see that more consistently in his game. If he does that, he’s a player you can use in all situations.”
Bickell didn’t disagree. He already knows what he has to do but sometimes has trouble doing it. That includes being physical.
“Some nights they’re there, some nights they aren’t,” Bickell said of hits to be delivered.
Even in down times last year Bickell was putting the puck in the net with a devastating wrist shot. He had 17 goals. This year he has just three, none since Oct. 31.
“It’s still there,” Bickell said of his offense. “The shots aren’t going in like last year. We’re right at the top of the league [in the standings]. That’s the most important part.”
Smith sent down: There’s irony in Smith’s demotion to the minors.
"We want him playing more,” Quenneville said. “I think Benny, his upside offensively, he can give us something there. I think not playing the quantity or the quality [with the Blackhawks] that we would like or he would like, we want him playing. Having an extra guy around here, he's in position where we can get him back there and get that game back to where he finished the season with us [last year]."
Quenneville wants Smith to play a more offensive role, like he was doing at the end of last season, but the coach didn’t give him the Hawks’ top players to work with. Smith was stuck on the bottom two lines, and now he’ll have to produce in the minors before returning for a top 6 chance. No one associated with the team believes we’ve seen the last of Smith, but his trajectory this season is a little off-course right now.
Brunette’s return: Brunette is more anxious than excited to return to St. Paul, where he scored 119 goals in six seasons with the Wild.
“It’s always a little strange that first time,” he said. “It’s good to get that over with. Next time is always easier.”
Brunette can relate to the experience the Wild are going through. He played in smaller markets his entire career before signing with the Hawks this past summer. There’s a certain underdog mentality.
“I’m sure their M.O. is they haven’t been getting any respect,” Brunette said. “I’ve been there before. It’s a strong motivation factor for everyone involved.”
Kane on Versus: Before the Hawks take on the Wild (Wednesday, Versus, 6:30 CT), Kane will be featured in the debut episode of “NHL 36.” Recently, cameras followed Kane around for 36 straight hours leading up to a game at the United Center.
“I’ve never really done something like this with a camera following you around,” Kane said. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of people watching. Hopefully it turns out good.”
The first airing will be Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. CT, but Kane planned on watching the final version, via DVD, on the Hawks charter to St. Paul Tuesday. He says he tried to ignore the camera.
“Maybe when you come to the rink a little bit [you don’t see the camera], but it’s hard not to notice it when you’re walking down the street. You have a camera right in your face,” Kane explained. “Once the game came along I kind of forgot about it a little bit.”
Player’s union boss Donald Fehr was in town this week to brief a group of agents about the upcoming labor negotiations. The collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league expires after this season and Fehr was stressing player involvement.
In an annual holiday tradition for the Hawks, Duncan Keith, Sean O'Donnell and Quenneville, along with their wives, will pass out gifts at Evanston Hospital’s Pediatric and Infant Special Care Units this Thursday afternoon.