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Blackhawks Buzz: March 30, 2014 at Pittsburgh Penguins

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks

Sunday’s game will conclude the Blackhawks and Penguins’ season series, with Chicago having taken the first game this season 5-1 in the Stadium Series game at Soldier Field on March 1. Jonathan Toews netted two goals and an assist in the win, and Corey Crawford stopped 31 shots to earn the two points. Marian Hossa has 44 points (11G, 33A) in 40 career games against his former squad. The Blackhawks last won in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2009 in a 2-1 overtime victory.

There’s almost no doubt that much of the attention for Sunday’s matchup will revolve around the teams’ top centers and captains, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. Widely regarded as the two top centers in the league, and two of the best leaders in hockey, each squad’s system starts with their top centerman, relying on their prowess at the faceoff dot to control the puck. No one in hockey has taken more than Crosby’s 1,764 draws this year, and Toews’ 1,535 attempts place him sixth in the league. Each player also generates a ton of offense for their side; Crosby leads the NHL with 98 points this year, while Toews’ 68 points are good for third on the Blackhawks and rank among the NHL’s top 20 scorers.

With a goal in Friday night’s loss to Ottawa, Patrick Sharp recorded his 72nd point of the season, a new career high for the talented winger, and he also registered a season-high nine shots on net in the game. His team-leading 72 points (32G, 40A) are good for sixth in the NHL, and he has scored 14 points (3G, 11A) in his last 14 games. The goal marked Sharp’s ninth power-play tally of the year, and he now ranks second on the team with 24 points while on the man advantage.

While there will be a ton of star power on the ice, just as conspicuous will be the absence of two of the league’s premier players: Patrick Kane and Evgeni Malkin. Kane, who has been sidelined since March 19 with a lower-body injury, still ranks second on the Blackhawks with 69 points (29G, 40A) this year. Malkin, who may miss the rest of the regular season with a foot ailment, ranks second on the Pens with 72 points (23G, 49A). With those stars sidelined, along with various injuries to role players such as Bryan Bickell, Michal Rozsival, Paul Martin, Kris Letang and Pascal Dupuis, both teams have been forced to rely on their depth to keep racking up wins as the season winds down.

As one of the NHL’s busiest goaltenders, Marc-Andre Fleury has put up his typically strong regular-season numbers for Pittsburgh. Fleury’s 58 starts this year put him behind only San Jose’s Antti Niemi and Phoenix’s Mike Smith for the league lead, and his 35 wins are tied for third in the NHL. The first-overall pick in 2003 has a 2.35 goals-against average this year, and his .917 save percentage is his highest since the 2010-11 season.

Coming off two straight losses where they were outscored by a combined 8-3, the Blackhawks would no doubt like to salvage this three-game road trip by bringing at least two points back to Chicago. The Penguins are coming off a 2-1 win over Columbus on Friday, but that came after a three-game losing streak of their own. Neither team is as healthy as they would like to be heading into April, but both teams have enough top-level skill and depth to be dangerous on the offensive end; both defensive units will have to be on high alert for all 60 minutes and execute a responsible, systematic game plan. In front of a national television audience, fans should expect to see a game with lots of speed, producing plenty of chances at both ends of the rink.

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