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Major gut-check week for the Wild as Chicago tightens the race

The division standings could look a lot different at the end the week.
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The race between the Wild and Blackhawks to win the Central Division – and possibly the Western Conference regular season title – feels like it will come down to the final few games.

This week could swing the division pendulum big time. Minnesota plays back-to-back Monday and Tuesday against the Kings and at Winnipeg while the Blackhawks rest and prepare for home games Wednesday and Friday against the Penguins and Islanders.

The Islanders lead the NHL with 28 points since Jan. 15 and Pittsburgh is second with 27 points, so the red-hot 'Hawks don't have it easy, but there slate is nothing compared to Minnesota, who follows up the back-to-back with tough games Thursday at Columbus and Sunday at home against the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.

NHL teams after a bye like the Wild just had have lost 16 of 21 games, according to SB Nation.

"L.A. will play a really hard game [tomorrow]," Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau said Sunday. "It's going to be a really tough game. There's no doubt in my mind."

Gut-check time

Jan. 15 is the day the Wild tied Chicago with 59 points for the division lead. Since then, the rivals have played nearly identical hockey, with the Wild going 12-5-1 compared to Chicago's 12-5-0 record.

Zoom in a little closer and you'll see that Chicago has taken Minnesota to the cleaners in February, racking up 18 points compared to the Wild's 13 points, including a pair of head-to-head victories. Chicago went 9-1 in February compared to the Wild 6-3-1 mark with two games to go.

"I've always said if we don't make any moves we feel confident in this group," Chicago's Jonathan Toews said Sunday after they won for the ninth time in 10 games, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I think we're trending the right way. We're playing solid. All four lines are contributing in every which way. I love our group right now. Everyone is getting better individually, contributing more and more."

Suddenly, the Blackhawks are playing like a team ready to win its fourth Stanley Cup since 2010.

Minnesota's answer for Chicago's pressure might have come Sunday night when they gave up a trio of draft picks for Arizona's Martin Hanzal and Ryan White. Hanzal was the No. 2 player on TSN's trade big board, but he's considered a rental player because he'll be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

“We’re putting our chips in the middle of the table for this year,” Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told reporters, via TSN. “We may as well take a swing and see how far we can go.”

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