CHICAGO — This is unfamiliar territory for the Wild and Blackhawks, vying for points in early January like their playoff livelihoods depend on it.
Because they do, the reality of being tangled in the clump of teams jostling for positioning — this after both paced the Central Division by a comfortable margin only a year ago.
After stumbling against the Avalanche and Flames — two other foes in the mix — the Wild received a much-needed boost in a 2-1 victory over the Blackhawks on Wednesday in front of 21,721 at United Center that could end up sealing pivotal points for the team by the time this race heats up in the spring.
For now, it flipped the Wild into the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference and awarded it a slim two-point edge over the Blackhawks.
“This is probably the biggest one on the slate for us,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said of the week. “To get the two points in regulation is massive.”
Defenseman Ryan Suter delivered the game-deciding goal 3 minutes, 3 seconds into the third period while action was 4-on-4 after the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane was whistled for tripping while the Wild’s Marcus Foligno was in the box for an illegal check to the head of defenseman Jan Rutta.
Suter finished off a 3-on-2 break, sending the puck top-shelf on goalie Anton Forsberg.
Package that goal with a 34-save effort by Dubnyk, and the Wild had enough to hold off the Blackhawks.
“We just played simple,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “We were getting pucks in deep instead of just trying to make a play as soon as we got it. We were holding onto it a bit more and getting the cycle game going.”
Chicago wasn’t at full strength up front, dressing seven defensemen after shipping winger Richard Panik to the Coyotes before the game, along with center Laurent Dauphin, in exchange for winger Anthony Duclair and defenseman Adam Clendening.
This, however, meant the Wild got a double dose of Kane. Coach Joel Quenne-ville double-shifted the winger, so the different look didn’t exactly have the feel of a disadvantage.
Defenseman Brent Seabrook, in his return to the lineup after being a rare healthy scratch Tuesday, opened the scoring with a bank shot off Dubnyk 12:24 into the first period.
The Wild challenged the goal to determine if the sequence was offside, but the initial good-goal call stood. Because its challenge was unsuccessful, the Wild was assessed a delay-of-game penalty. Chicago didn’t convert — both teams finished 0-for-3 on the power play — but it was still dominant in the period, outshooting the Wild 14-5 and racking up 41 total attempts compared to only 11 for the visitors.
“That first period was terrible,” Suter said. “We weren’t skating, no energy, turning pucks over and they were playing in our end. It’s tough to play against a team like that and play defense against a team like that for a whole period, but we hung on.”
A Jonas Brodin shot deflected off Chicago winger Tommy Wingels’ stick and over Forsberg’s left shoulder at 9:58 of the second. With a secondary assist on the Brodin goal, defenseman Matt Dumba notched the 100th point of his career.
The improved play carried over into the third, when the Wild drained clock helping the team complete its comeback.
It was just the strategy the team needed to nix a four-game losing streak on the road, dating to Dec. 19. Those struggles must disappear the rest of the way for the team to keep up with the others clamoring for a playoff spot.
“Sometimes you gotta play a different brand on the road,” Dubnyk said. “You gotta just play simple and weather the other team’s push and then capitalize on your plays.”