BLACKHAWKS (21-2-3) at BLUE JACKETS (10-12-5)
TV: CSN-Chicago, FS-Ohio
Last 10: Chicago 8-2-0; Columbus 5-2-3
Big story: Chicago and Columbus might be at opposite ends of the Central Division standings, but the massive gap between them has shrunk ever so slightly in the past week. With the Blackhawks' historic start now over, they have lost two in a row and will look to stem a potential losing streak Thursday, a task that might not be so easy against the Blue Jackets, who may be in last place but are 5-0-3 in their past eight games.
Blackhawks: After turning heads across the North American sports world for the first half of the NHL season, is it possible the Blackhawks are suddenly in ... a slump? That might be a bit dramatic, but considering Chicago didn't lose in regulation in its first 24 games, it is still somewhat surprising for them to have lost two in a row. More disconcerting than the losses, however, might be that Chicago gave up a total of 12 goals in them. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery's remarkable play in net had been a cornerstone of the Blackhawks' streak, but in back-to-back losses each goalie got one start -- and each was yanked midgame for the other one.
Chicago will need Crawford and Emery to return to form if the losing streak is to end, but the Blackhawks can take some positives out of their jarring loss to the Edmonton Oilers at home Sunday night. Trailing 4-0 after the first period, the Blackhawks stormed back to close the score to 6-5 before falling short.
With Chicago starting a four-game road trip, the team will need to carry that momentum if it hopes to start another winning streak. The Blackhawks are coming off a four-day break, which could have given the consensus best team from the first half of the season a needed break. After all, a top seed in the Western Conference that once seemed all but certain is now up in the air; the Anaheim Ducks trail Chicago by four points and have a game in hand.
Blue Jackets: The road to a postseason berth is still a long one for Columbus, which must jump over five teams -- all of whom have games in hand -- to nab the eighth spot in the West. But it is three points behind the eighth-place Minnesota Wild, and the Blue Jackets made the race a lot more interesting by crafting a recent five-game winning streak, one shy of their franchise record. That was snapped in Columbus' shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night, but the team, which appeared in turmoil this offseason after trading best player Rick Nash and firing general manager Scott Howson, appears to be on the right track by earning at least a point in eight straight games.
The winning streak coincided with a breakout stretch for 2010 first-round draft pick Ryan Johansen, who had points in four straight games after getting three all season. The Blue Jackets also clinched a season-series victory against the rival Detroit Red Wings for the first time in the team's 12-year history by sweeping a home-and-home this weekend. With Columbus playing its next four games at Nationwide Arena, there is a good opportunity to continue a climb up the standings.
Injury report: The Blackhawks are without Patrick Sharp (sprained left shoulder), who will miss another 2-3 weeks. … Blue Jackets forward Derek Dorsett (broken collarbone) is out for the season. Forward Artem Anisimov (lower body) is doubtful.
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