COYOTES (34-18-5) at BLACKHAWKS (37-15-4)
Last 10: Phoenix 8-2-0; Chicago 6-4-0
Season Series: The Coyotes have taken the only matchup so far this season, a 3-1 win over the Blackhawks at Jobing.com Arena on Nov. 5.
Big Story: The Coyotes are facing a major challenge in the Blackhawks as they look to continue moving up the Western Conference standings.
Coyotes: After spending most of this season with an uncertain future, not only has Phoenix managed to tune out the drama of its ownership situation, it seems pretty clear that these Coyotes can play. Phoenix has been in the playoff mix all season, but now the Yotes are rolling into Chicago on a five-game winning streak that has them nipping at the heels of the West's top dogs. The Coyotes have 73 points, fourth most in the League and just eight off the pace for the top seed in the conference.
Most encouraging may be the response of the Phoenix community. The Coyotes announced Thursday that viewership of regional telecasts is up 50 percent over the numbers from the 2008-09 season. The players are responding on the ice. Keith Yandle has helped pace the offense with five points in his last five games, while Ilya Bryzgalov has won his last four starts with a 1.90 goals-against average over that stretch. While Phoenix has been competitive most of the season, the team appears to be reaching its peak as the regular season hits its stretch run. The only concern for coach Dave Tippett might be that his troops save something for the playoffs.
Blackhawks: After acquitting themselves very well on a season-high eight-game road trip, the Hawks did not have the homecoming they expected Wednesday. After taking a lead on Patrick Kane's nifty backhand goal, Chicago gave up three goals in the second period in an eventual 3-2 loss to St. Louis. The loss was the second in a row for Chicago, but the good news is with a 14-point cushion in the Central Division, the Hawks can afford to work out the kinks without sweating the playoff race.
Still, coach Joel Quenneville would no doubt like to fix whatever is ailing his team quickly so the Blackhawks can make a run at the No. 1 seed. Chicago clinched the season series with the West-leading Sharks on its recent road swing and stands a good chance at nabbing the top spot. Kane has made his usual contributions with nine points in his last nine games, while Marian Hossa has potted three goals in his last four, but the Hawks are once again looking shaky between the pipes. Netminder Cristobal Huet, who will be starting Friday, has lost his last two outings while chalking up a 3.62 goals-against average and an .837 save percentage. If Huet can get back on track, Quenneville may have found just what ails the Blackhawks.
Who's Hot: Shane Doan is the Coyotes' last remaining link to their Winnipeg days, and with the franchise's first playoff berth in eight years within reach, the veteran winger is playing like he's excited to be on the ice in May again, tallying 15 points in his last nine games. … In Chicago, Andrew Ladd has been pitching in his part among the Hawks' typical young guns with four points in his last four games.
Injury Report: Chicago's Antti Niemi has been battling illness this week, and while the Hawks have said Huet will get the start, Niemi is expected to be available Friday. … Phoenix is without Scottie Upshall indefinitely after the winger suffered a knee injury last week.
Stat Pack: Bryzgalov was never a full-time starter before coming to Phoenix three seasons ago, but the previous two were rough campaigns. This year, Bryz seems to finally have adapted to a full season. He has already set a career high with 30 wins, while his 2.29 GAA is well below his career average.
Puck Drop: With Chicago's place among the West's elite seemingly assured, this game will serve as a measuring stick for the Coyotes. Phoenix has only lost two of its last 10 games, but those losses were to Washington and Buffalo, which both lead their respective divisions. The Coyotes need a win against a contender to prove they can make hay in the postseason.