Blackhawks-Wild Preview

The Associated Press

The Chicago Blackhawks have played some of their best hockey of the season over the past month despite missing several of their best players.

Getting top defenseman Duncan Keith back in the lineup should make them even more formidable.

Keith is scheduled to return from a five-game suspension Thursday night when the visiting Blackhawks face the Minnesota Wild for the second time in five days.

Already playing without captain Jonathan Toews due to a concussion, the Blackhawks (44-26-10) lost Keith for five games after he elbowed Vancouver's Daniel Sedin on March 21.

The Blackhawks went 2-1-2 without Keith - the 2009-10 Norris Trophy winner and the team's top scoring defenseman this season with 40 points.

While having Keith available will be a huge boost, Chicago is still waiting for Toews to return from the concussion that has sidelined him 20 games. Toews has been ruled out for Thursday, but could return Saturday for the regular-season finale at Detroit.

"There's still signs of the concussion lingering and, you know, when that's completely gone I'll be comfortable playing," Toews told the league's official website. "It's one of those things where it's very easy to come back if one little thing goes wrong, so I'm just waiting for (the symptoms to completely subside)."

Chicago has gone 12-5-3 without its captain, clinching a playoff berth for the fourth straight season. The Blackhawks have locked up at least sixth place in the Western Conference and are two points behind fifth-place Nashville with two games remaining for each team.

"Hopefully we get both (Keith and Toews) back and we can become better as a team,'' right wing Patrick Kane said. "That's the biggest thing right now, working on these last two games, you want to move forward and get as high as you can in the standings."

Toews isn't the only regular the Blackhawks will be without Thursday. Third-line center Dave Bolland (upper body) won't play and veteran forward Andrew Brunette (lower body) could miss his second straight game.

Although the Blackhawks lost 5-4 in a shootout to the Wild on Sunday in their final home game of the regular season, they did erase a two-goal deficit and earned at least a point for the 14th time in 16 games (11-2-3).

The game was physical, featuring three fights in the first 30 minutes.

"It was good to get one point at least,'' Kane said. "Sometimes those teams are tough to play, with some young guys trying to prove themselves, and you could see at the start they were going to play chippy and make some kind of statement.''

Corey Crawford rested Sunday after starting eight consecutive games, but is likely to be back in net Thursday. He is 7-1-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average in his last nine appearances.

Despite being eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago, Minnesota (34-35-11) had won three straight before a 2-1 shootout loss at Nashville on Tuesday.

"Just an ugly game all around, but the effort was there," Wild forward Devin Setoguchi said.

Minnesota has won four of five at home following a season-high five-game skid there.

The Blackhawks are 2-0-1 against the Wild this season, and 8-1-2 in the series since the start of 2009-10. Chicago is 4-0-1 in its last five visits to the Xcel Energy Center.

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