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Blackhawks Buzz: February 7, 2014 at Phoenix Coyotes

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks

The Western Conference has been a dogfight (pun intended) since October, and the Phoenix Coyotes are struggling for their playoff lives, currently sitting ninth in the conference, just outside of the wild card spots. While Phoenix’s 2.79 goals-per-game average is good for 12th in the league, they’ve surrendered nearly three goals per game this year – 23rd in the NHL, a sharp decline for a club that has relied on team defense for success in the past. The Coyotes have not had many opportunities to play with a lead this year, scoring 36 goals in the first period while surrendering 47. Meanwhile, they hold just a .240 winning percentage in games that they’ve trailed after the first period, seventh-worst in the league.

It got off to a somewhat bumpy start, but the Blackhawks have the chance to end their six-game West Coast road trip with 10 of a possible 12 points if they win on Friday. Marian Hossa has collected at least a point in each of Chicago’s five road contests (3G, 4A), while Corey Crawford has stopped 140 of the 147 shots he’s faced in five starts, good for a .952 save percentage.

2013-14 has been an up-and-down season for Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, but the 2014 Olympian has been better so far in Feburary. Smith allowed just one goal to Pittsburgh in a Coyotes victory on Feb. 1, and was the tough-luck loser on Feb. 4 against Dallas, making 37 of 39 stops as Phoenix fell, 3-1. Smith’s .910 save percentage this year is around his career average, but his 2.85 goals-against average is 37th among league goalies, which speaks to the number of chances his team allows per game; the Coyotes surrender 32.1 shots per contest, seventh-most in the league.

One of the most exciting two-way players in the league is Phoenix’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a 22-year-old Swedish blueliner and 2014 Olympian. Ekman-Larsson’s five power-play goals leads team defensemen and is tied for seventh among NHL d-men overall, while his 3:09 per game on the penalty kill also leads his team. The sixth overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft has 29 points (8G, 21A) in 54 games this year, and is on pace to set career marks in goals, assists and points.

The Blackhawks will be without star winger Patrick Kane on Friday, as he left the team after Wednesday’s win due to family concerns. Kane’s four points (1G, 3A) in the Blackhawks’ two games against Phoenix this year pace the team, and his absence from the second line will force Head Coach Joel Quenneville to juggle his lineup for the tilt. Being without the 25-year-old right wing is a position the Blackhawks have (fortunately) not been in very often through his seven-year career; Kane has missed just 11 contests in that time—10 due to injury—but the team has managed to go 7-3-1 without him.

The Blackhawks can complete the season sweep of Phoenix with a win Friday, which also closes out their slate against the Pacific Division. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which went a perfect five-for-five on Wednesday against Anaheim, will have to be sharp again on Friday; Phoenix’s power play (19.8 percent) is among the league’s top 10. Chicago’s game plan will likely include getting plenty of pucks on net and forcing Mike Smith to make the key saves to keep Phoenix in the game. With the Olympic break coming up, there’s no reason for the Blackhawks not to leave it all out on the ice.

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