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Feb 7, 2024 12:45 am

Wild return from break to face lowly Blackhawks

Jake Middleton

Despite skidding into the All-Star break with consecutive one-goal defeats, the Minnesota Wild assure fans they’re operating more like the group that won four of five before the slump.

“I feel like we’re all a little rejuvenated,” Wild defenseman Jake Middleton said. “We were loud and having fun (at practice) and scoring lots of goals, which is nice. I think everyone’s refreshed and ready to get back after it.”

Minnesota is set to begin the de facto second half of the season with Wednesday’s meeting with the host Chicago Blackhawks, one of three clubs below the Wild in the Western Conference standings.

With 33 games remaining in the regular season, Minnesota sits seven points out of the final playoff spot in the West.

Still, the break allowed the Wild to get healthy. Multiple injured players were back in the fold on Monday when the team resumed practice, led by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had been sidelined since sustaining a concussion in a Jan. 19 victory against Florida.

Minnesota defeated Carolina and Washington in its next two games before losing a pair of home games, to Nashville and Anaheim on Jan. 25 and 27, respectively, both by 3-2 scores.

“Obviously, we needed more points — always,” Fleury said. “It is what it is now. I think everybody enjoyed the break, got their minds away from it, and I think we’ll be ready to go again here and have a good push to put ourselves in a spot here for the playoffs.”

The postseason isn’t on the radar for Chicago, which totes an NHL-low 30 points into the stretch run.

The Blackhawks lost eight of 10 before the All-Star break. The last four setbacks came consecutively on a Western road trip to Vancouver, Seattle, Edmonton and Calgary in which Chicago was outscored 12-2.

Chicago was unable to solve Calgary goaltender Jacob Markstrom on Jan. 27 in its first-half finale, as Markstrom stopped all 32 shots he faced in a 1-0 Flames victory.

“It’s frustrating,” Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said, “but I told the guys we’ve got to keep playing like that and they’re going to drop, and we’ll start getting healthier and get some more help in that department. We’re playing the right way. We’re proud of how we’re playing, but it’s still the NHL, and we’ve got to find results somehow.”

Wednesday marks the beginning of a five-game homestand for Chicago, which has won two straight at United Center. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are 0-19-1 in their past 20 road games.

Chicago is set to play 10 of its next 11 games on home ice.

“It’ll be nice to sleep in your own bed every night,” Blackhawks defenseman Alex Vlasic said. “You can know your routine will be the same for the next (four) weeks.”

While the team’s points leader, rookie Connor Bedard (fractured jaw), remains a few weeks away from returning, fellow forward Tyler Johnson is set to return after a foot injury sidelined him since Dec. 31.

Minnesota forward Pat Maroon (upper-body injury) is out after being placed on injured reserve Monday.

–Field Level Media

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