Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp, left, making his return to the ice, and new Minnesota Wild player Jason Pominville, chase the puck in the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, April 9, 2013 in St. Paul. Sharp has returned to the Chicago Blackhawks' lineup after a 14-game absence because of a shoulder injury. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
ST. PAUL, Minn. - Patrick Sharp rejoined the Chicago Blackhawks machine as if he was never gone. Marian Hossa provided the welcome-back gift.
Hossa's unassisted goal late in the second period lifted the NHL-leading Blackhawks to their fifth win in six games, 1-0 over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night.
Ray Emery started for the Blackhawks for the third straight game and made 20 saves for his second shutout in that stretch and third of the season. He helped hand the Wild their fifth loss in seven games.
"We feel pretty good about our team," Hossa said. "Right now, we've got a fifth line out there with some great players, and they don't get in the lineup. I think we're pretty strong up front. Our defence played great, and Ray's played unreal the last three games."
Hossa looked like a Bears defensive back jumping in front of a wide receiver's route when he darted in front of Clayton Stoner's seemingly harmless breakout pass toward Mikko Koivu in the Wild zone. Hossa intercepted the bouncing pass in front of the blue line, skated up the middle and snapped a shot past goalie Niklas Backstrom's stick with 4:46 left before the second intermission.
"Sometimes we try to use our instincts," Hossa said, adding: "I was at the spot, the timing was right and the puck hit me basically on the tape. Even though he put a really hard pass across, I had lots to do to catch that. I tried to release it so quick."
That was Hossa's first goal since March 16 at Dallas. He missed six games in that scoreless stretch because of an upper body injury, but Hossa is still second on the team with 14 goals.
"I pride myself on trying to play mistake free, and that was a costly one," Stoner said. "I feel bad for letting the team down."
The Blackhawks enjoyed an even bigger boost when Sharp returned from a 14-game absence due to a shoulder injury. Chicago went 4-5 over those first nine games without Sharp before getting back on track, but the league's top-scoring team is equipped with enough exceptional skill on its forward lines that it didn't miss much of a beat.
"I think we've got a pretty good thing going here right now," Sharp said. "I was just happy to get back in the swing of things with the team. It's a great team to be a part of. Awesome guys off the ice. They make you feel welcome right away. So it was great to be out there. I think we're a good team, with or without me."
The first team in the NHL this season to clinch a spot in the playoffs, the Blackhawks outshot the Wild 31-20 to move one step closer to securing the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They are five points ahead of second-place Anaheim and have a game in hand over the Ducks. The Blackhawks (30-5-4) are 16-2-2 on the road, by far the best mark in the league.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville gave Emery the start again over Corey Crawford. He said Crawford is 100 per cent healthy. The way his team has been playing, though, picking the wrong goalie would be hard to do.
"I think there's a lot of confidence, and we're excited for whoever is in net," said star Patrick Kane. "I think right now we're pretty confident in our team. Just try to keep getting better."
The Wild (22-15-2) put themselves in prime position for a spot in the post-season for the first time in five years by going a franchise-best 11-4 in March, but they are far from safe with just a five-point edge over ninth-place Dallas and Columbus. Six of the Wild's final nine games are against teams currently below the playoff cut.
"We've still got some pretty good players here," Wild star Zach Parise said. "We should be able to get some sustained pressure. We did the other night in Columbus. But that's a team that plays really well defensively. I think they've given up the least amount of shots. It's tough to get anything consistently going."
They had their chances, particularly when Cal Clutterbuck got his rebound attempt behind Emery but not enough to nudge it past the goal line. Clutterbuck's second swing missed, and Emery gained control.
The Wild's biggest blow came before the game when they learned right wing Dany Heatley, third on the team with 11 goals, will miss the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs following surgery on his left shoulder.
"You've got to get through it. Good teams can step up," right wing Devin Setoguchi said.
NOTES: Wild C Zenon Konopka's clearing pass landed in an unusual place, on Quenneville's head. The puck bounced off the glass behind the bench before hitting Quenneville, who laughed as he rubbed his grey hair after the harmless blow. ... The Blackhawks are 6-0-3 against the Wild in the last nine meetings. ... Koivu hasn't scored in seven games and hasn't recorded a point in five games. ... The Wild were also without C Matt Cullen (lower body) for the fourth straight game. ... The Blackhawks scratched C Dave Bolland (lower body) for the third straight game. Quenneville wasn't ready to commit to his return on Friday against Detroit.
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