Posted January 12, 2012 on AP on Fox
The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild occupied the top two spots in the Western Conference as recently as Dec. 26 before recent slumps contributed to their drop in the standings. Coming off much-needed victories, Chicago and Minnesota meet Thursday night at the United Center. The Blackhawks beat the then-conference-leading Wild 4-3 in a shootout in the most recent meeting Dec. 14 - part of Minnesota's eight-game losing streak from Dec. 13-28. At that time, Chicago was in the midst of taking over the West lead by going 10-2-1 from Dec. 2-30. The Blackhawks (25-13-5), though, followed that run by losing four straight before a 5-2 win over Columbus on Tuesday, pulling into a tie for the Central Division lead with surging St. Louis. Minnesota (22-15-6), currently seventh in the West, ended a 1-8-3 slump with a 5-4 shootout win over San Jose on Tuesday. "That was the team we were three weeks ago,'' coach Mike Yeo said. Matt Cullen scored in the third period and added a goal in the shootout. "Boy, we needed that,'' Cullen said. "It's time. We've struggled here for long enough, and you can't afford to struggle too long in this league. Teams pass you by, and we see where we are in the standings. We want to climb.'' The same goes for the Blackhawks, who got goals from Dave Bolland and rookie Ben Smith to go along with Viktor Stalberg's first NHL hat trick. "I wish it was like that every night,'' said Stalberg, who's scored seven goals against Columbus and has 25 points this season - one more than he had in 77 games in 2010-11. "I hope I can keep going against some other teams." Captain Jonathan Toews assisted on Stalberg's first goal as the two played on the top line with Patrick Kane. "As a line, we were getting chances and (Stalberg) was the one telling us, 'Stay with it, we're going to get one,''' said Toews, who took a puck to the head in the first period. "It's been a long time since we saw hats rain down at the (United Center), but it was a nice thing to see.'' Toews had a goal and an assist in the first meeting with Minnesota as Chicago improved to 7-1-1 in the last nine matchups. Ray Emery made 27 saves in that contest, and he'll be in net again Thursday after Corey Crawford started the last three games. Emery saved 41 of a career-high 46 shots faced in his most recent start Jan. 5 - a 5-4 loss to Philadelphia. He's 9-3-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average in 15 appearances - 13 starts - this season, and 2-0-0 with a 2.88 GAA lifetime versus the Wild. Josh Harding made 34 saves in Tuesday's win, but he didn't practice Wednesday because of an illness. It's unclear if he'll be available, though Niklas Backstrom is likely to get the start. Backstrom has struggled lately, going 1-5-0 with a 3.54 GAA in his last six starts. He's 1-4-1 with a 3.43 GAA in his last seven against the Blackhawks. Chicago will again be without Patrick Sharp, who is expected to miss three to four weeks with an upper-body injury. Marcus Kruger will miss his eighth straight game with a concussion, though he may return Saturday at Detroit.

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