The Minnesota Wild entered Monday night’s contest at the United Center having already clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With 100 points, still had a chance to finish in either first or second place in the Central Division. However, with the way they played for much of the night against the Chicago Blackhawks, they look content with finishing in third place. They needed two late third-period goals and an empty-netter to pull out a 4-2 victory in a game they had no business winning.
After a sluggish and sloppy start to the game, the Wild scored first at the 12:32 mark. Matt Boldy was left alone at the near post and was able to get a second-chance shot off his own rebound and swiped home a backhand shot for his 31st goal of the season. The Sweet Khaira Line, as dubbed by Chris Vosters, tied the game with less than two minutes left in the opening frame. Boris Katchouk sent a pass across the crease to Joey Anderson, who was denied on his first shot, but stayed with it and stuffed the puck between Filip Gustavsson’s leg for his fourth goal with the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks were all over the Wild to start the second period. Anders Bjork scored his first goal with the team at 2:23 by just getting enough of a rebound off a Buddy Robinson shot to get it past Gustavsson. The assist was Robinson’s first point with the Blackhawks.
The second period was the most dominant period of hockey the Blackhawks have played all season. They out the Wild 20-5, but thanks to some great goaltending by Gustavsson, only held a one-goal lead heading into the last stanza.
Jonathan Toews appeared to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead during a delayed penalty about eight minutes into the third period. After the goal, the refs had a brief discussion where they took the goal off the board because they ruled Minnesota gained possession of the puck before Toews batted it into the net.
Shortly after Marcus Foligno got kicked out of the game for punching Andreas Englund while he was already down, Marcus Johansson tied the game with a shorthanded goal. Less than three minutes later, Johansson played give-and-go with Boldy and scored the game-winning goal. Gustav Nyqvist iced the game with a late empty-net tally.
The Blackhawks put up 42 shots on goal, allowed just 22, and won 64% of the faceoffs. They deserved a much better fate than what they got, but too many mistakes down the stretch cost them a victory.
Greg’s Hit: Andreas Athanasiou Flourishing in Late-Season Opportunity
When Luke Richardson moved Athanasiou to center for the March 25 game against the Wild, I wondered if it was the right call. He lost all eight of his faceoffs in his first game down the middle but has played his best hockey in Chicago since the position switch.
“I think it’s a great spot for him,” Richardson said of Athanasiou playing center. “He’s such a great skater. We’ve asked him to be more conscious defensively, and he’s done that. He’s picked up his game. He relishes that freedom to skate in the middle. He’s taken steps in his game, and we’ve needed him to. I’m hoping for even more of that. He’s a guy that can be hard on himself at times. On the wing, he can get standing still a little bit, and that’s the worst thing for his game. This is a good opportunity for him to flourish at the end of the year.
The second line of Athanasiou, Bjork, and Robinson dominated the first period as they had 10 shot attempts while not surrendering one to Minnesota.
Athanasiou had the secondary assist on Bjork’s goal for his 18th helper of the season. He finished his night with four shots on goal on 11 shot attempts, and won eight of his 12 faceoffs. Hopefully, his agent puts together a package of the last 12 games of the season when negotiating the next contract for his client.
Jay’s Hit: Boris Katchouk is finding his way
I’ll be honest. There was a point this season where I had completely written off Boris Katchouk. Most nights, he was a complete non-factor. At practices, he would miss open nets in warmups. He looked like a player that had completely lost “it” and had no path back to finding what “it” was.” Luke Richardson must have disagreed.
On October 1st, during the Blackhawks’ second preseason game, Katchouk suffered a high-ankle sprain. He finally returned to the lineup on October 29. After returning, it took the 24-year old forward 11 games to record a single point. After 40 games, Katchouk had six points, but something changed shortly after the trade deadline passed. Kathcouk found himself getting more opportunities, and the points started coming. From March 10 to March 18 (five games) Kathcouk picked up six more points, doubling his season total and has added four more points since (including an assist in Monday’s game vs the Wild).
“I think it was just getting more opportunity to play,” Luke Richardson said before Monday’s game. “Getting Boris onto the penalty kill really helped his game as well. It got him skating. It got him more attuned with the game…kinda just a little more engaged in the game. It’s hard to come back from a high-ankle sprain in this league. It was bothering him for a while. That gradually got stronger, and that probably let him play a bit more of his game, as well.”
Katchouk is never going to set the NHL ablaze with his scoring prowess, but he’s proving worthy of an extended look next season.
Mario’s Hit: Anders Bjork on the board!
On a night where Wisconsin-native Joe Pavelski became the first NHL player from the state to reach 1,000 career points, there was another Wisconsinite reaching a big milestone…not as big, but still. Mequon-native Anders Bjork scored his first goal as a member of the Blackhawks in the second period, a changeup shot that put the Blackhawks up 2-1 at that point in the game. The goal was the first for Bjork in the NHL since April 17 of last year when he was with the Buffalo Sabres.
I wonder what the future for Bjork is with the club or even in the NHL. He’s a fine player with a good amount of speed to his game. He’s turning 27 this summer and hasn’t been an unquestionable established NHL player at any point in his career. But he’s the right kind of player that the Blackhawks are currently using to accomplish two things: A) Sift through a couple of scrap heaps and find some gems, and B) turn those scrap-heap gems into more valuable future assets.
This is not to say that Anders Bjork is necessarily the next Sam Lafferty when it comes to executing this gameplan by Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson, but what could it hurt for the team to give Bjork another, full-season go of it? They have to reach the NHL salary cap floor and, like we said all this season and in the lead-up to the year, you can’t just play all of your young players and expected good results. Bjork seems like a player eager to make the most of this opportunity with the Blackhawks and for a guy like him, any day on an NHL roster is better than being on an AHL roster, which is a fine motivator.