(SportsNetwork.com) - A pair of Central Division rivals will meet for the opener of a home-and-home series on Saturday, as the Chicago Blackhawks welcome the Minnesota Wild for a clash at United Center.
This is the first of five meetings between these teams this season and the first as members of the same division. Chicago was previously a member of the Central Division, but the Wild joined the group for this season as part of the NHL's realignment plan.
The Wild, who will host Chicago on Monday, have not fared well against Chicago in recent meetings. The Blackhawks have won two straight in the series and boast a 6-0-3 record in the past nine encounters between the clubs. The defending Stanley Cup champions also have come out on top in three of four and five of its last seven meetings in the Windy City.
Minnesota comes into this Central Division showdown with wins in its last two trips to the ice and will try to win three straight for the second time this season. The Wild won both games on their mini-streak at home, beating Nashville 2-0 on Tuesday before notching a 3-1 decision Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise tallied first-period goals that held up for the win on Thursday against the 'Canes. Both early scores came against Justin Peters, who was pressed into duty for Carolina when No. 1 goaltender Cam Ward exited with a lower-body injury just 4:07 into the contest.
Dany Heatley's first goal of the season, an empty-netter with 25.9 seconds left, sealed the Wild's fourth straight win on home ice.
"I thought our start was good. Got up a couple goals and we definitely let our foot off the gas," said Wild head coach Mike Yeo.
Minnesota, meanwhile, also lost a goaltender to injury as Josh Harding stopped 20-of-21 shots before leaving after two periods with a lower-body injury. Niklas Backstrom came on for the third and made seven saves to protect the lead. Backstrom will get the call on Saturday, his first start since getting injured on Oct. 8
It's unclear if Harding will be able to serve as the backup tonight. If he's unable to suit up, the Wild will use Johan Gustafsson to spell Backstrom if the need arises.
The Blackhawks are coming off a loss, but the team has managed to earn a point in seven straight games, going 5-0-2 over that span.
Chicago had a two-game winning streak halted Thursday, dropping a wild 6-5 overtime decision in Tampa. Martin St. Louis scored on a rebound 1:16 into the extra session to give the host Lightning the extra point.
After Steven Stamkos scored his second goal of the game with 2:29 left in regulation to put the Lightning ahead 5-4, Jonathan Toews was credited with a goal on a Tampa Bay miscue less than a minute later to force overtime. However, in the extra session, Radko Gudas ripped a shot at Nikolai Khabibulin, who coughed up the rebound which allowed St. Louis to wrist home the game-winner.
Khabibulin, in just his second game of the season, stopped just 19-of-25 shots for the Blackhawks, who had won five of six games entering Thursday's tilt. Bryan Bickell, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Andrew Shaw all netted goals in defeat.
"I thought going into the third period we didn't give up much. We were playing the right way," Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Things got a little bit different than we've seen in any third period this year. I guess it was one of those nights where the puck was going in."
Corey Crawford is expected to get the start on Saturday. He is 3-1-2 with a 2.01 goals against average in seven career outings against the Wild.