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Blackhawks Buzz: April 9, 2014 vs. Montreal Canadiens

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks

Wednesday’s game marks the Blackhawks’ final regular-season bout at the United Center, where the team has gone 26-7-7 so far this year. Opposing them will be the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge of the Montreal Canadiens, whom the Blackhawks have only hosted five times at the United Center since 2000; they have won three straight home decisions, dating back to Oct. 18, 2006. The two teams last met on Jan. 11 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, a 2-1 overtime loss for Chicago, in which Corey Crawford was the tough-luck loser despite making 38 saves (compared to the 20 stops made by opposing netminder Carey Price).

Although Head Coach Joel Quenneville is loath to number his lines, the combination of Marcus Kruger, Joakim Nordstrom and Brandon Bollig has done a tremendous job at both ends of the ice as the team’s de facto fourth line. Particularly in the Blackhawks’ last two games, the trio has consistently found themselves with good scoring chances around the opponent’s net, with Kruger tallying Sunday’s game-winner off a rebounded shot from Nordstrom. The ability to give any line of forwards an offensive or defensive assignment has given Coach Q the ability to distribute minutes more evenly among his forwards, especially with the notable absences of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Blackhawks’ injuries up front have also given several young players a chance to get playing time at the NHL level, and call-up Jeremy Morin is making the most of his latest opportunity. Morin enters Wednesday’s game on a three-game point streak, which included a two-point effort (1G, 1A) in Sunday’s 4-2 win over St. Louis, when he was named the game’s first star. Morin has tallied three goals and six assists in 21 NHL games this season, in addition to 47 points (24G, 23A) with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

With many Eastern Conference teams jockeying for playoff positioning, Montreal’s Max Pacioretty is doing all he can to help the Habs move up the standings. The 25-year-old Connecticut native was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week on Monday after tallying four goals and two assists last week, including a five-point (3G, 2A) night against Ottawa on April 4. No player in the league has more than Pacioretty’s 11 game-winning goals this year, and he leads the Canadiens with 60 points in 70 games, five off his career high set in 2011-12. Additionally, he's also the first Montreal player to post three hat tricks in a season since Pierre Larouche in 1980-81.

Since joining the Canadiens at the trade deadline, winger Tomas Vanek has given the Habs exactly what they were looking for when they acquired the former Buffalo Sabre and New York Islander: scoring, scoring and more scoring. In 15 games with Montreal, the 30-year-old Austrian has played at nearly a point-per-game clip, tallying 14 points (6G, 8A) in 15 games, including two power-play scores and two game-winners. Vanek has netted eight points (2G, 6A) in his last five games, including two three-point efforts.

The Canadiens are getting hot at the right time after going 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, and are in the driver’s seat to have home ice advantage against Tampa Bay in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even though Montreal will be without defensemen Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin as well as All-Star netminder Price, there is still enough talent at both ends of the ice to present a challenge. However, the Blackhawks’ depth has been on full display in April, and the team has just bested three of the stingiest defenses in the league consecutively. Chicago has also seen its veteran leadership carry the load in the absence of their captain, with Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all leading by example on the ice. Expect a tight-checking, low-scoring affair featuring two teams who are playing their systems at peak efficiency. The two points will likely go to the team who is able to get one more “greasy goal” in a critical moment.

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