1. BEWARE OF SHARKS
A holiday feast awaits the Blackhawks later this week, but first they must get past the San Jose Sharks, who most recently swept a six-game road trip to the East Coast, outscoring their opponents 19-11 and climbing back into a tie with Los Angeles for the Pacific Division lead. In their last game, the Sharks recovered from a 3-1 deficit in Columbus to win 5-3 off a pair of goals from captain Joe Pavelski. San Jose hopes to bring their road success back home, where they're just 3-5-0 this season, while the Blackhawks are trying to build off the first half of their Circus Trip. Chicago may have been on the wrong end of a lopsided 6-3 result last Saturday in Vancouver, which marked their first regulation loss to a Pacific team this season, but Head Coach Joel Quenneville complimented his team's overall effort outside the last 5 minutes of the third period.
2. NET GAIN
After missing the playoffs for the first time in 2003, San Jose made a few offseason moves, getting younger on offense and acquiring former Los Angeles backup Martin Jones, who has been spectacular in his first season as a starter. The 25-year-old has a 11-5-0 record with three shutouts; his .929 save percentage ranks seventh in the league and his 2.02 goals-against average is fourth-best (min. 7 games started). Jones started and won five of six games during the Sharks' road trip, making a combined 153 saves on 161 shots (.950 SV%), and he hasn't allowed a single goal at even strength over his last two games; he was named the NHL's First Star of the Week ending Nov. 22. Getting the puck past Jones—who stands at 6 foot, 4 inches—will require Chicago to set up screens in front or use puck movement to get him moving laterally.
3. MARLEAU MAN
Patrick Marleau is about as synonymous with the Sharks as their teal sweater, and for good reason. The 36-year-old has spent his entire career in San Jose, and on Nov. 21 he reached the 1,000-point marker with an assist against Pittsburgh, becoming the first to do so in franchise history and just the third from the 1997 draft class, alongside teammate Joe Thornton (1,273 points) and the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa (1,065). Marleau ranks fourth on the team with 15 points (7G, 8A) in 21 games this season and centers a dangerous second line with rookie Joonas Donskoi (seven points in 16 games) and Joel Ward (17 points, sharing second on the team). Despite being one of the oldest active players in the league, he still averages nearly 20 minutes a game, ranking in the top 20 amongst NHL forwards, while seeing plenty of time on the power play and penalty kill.
4. IN THE MIX
The Blackhawks have been a one-line team through the first quarter of the season, and balanced scoring is one area Quenneville would like to improve as the team tries to stay apace in the hyper-competitive Central Division. On Saturday in Vancouver, Chicago did receive offensive contributions from a somewhat unexpected top line of Jonathan Toews, Ryan Garbutt and Andrew Shaw. Garbutt netted his first goal since joining the Blackhawks on four shots on goal, while Toews led the team with five scoring chances and six shot attempts at even strength, finishing the game with a goal and an assist. As Quenneville seeks consistent production among his top nine forwards, fans can expect other combinations to be tested out.
5. BURNS NOTICE
In his fifth season with San Jose, Brent Burns has emerged as an early Norris Trophy candidate, sharing second on the team with 17 points and tied for the league lead among defensemen with eight goals. The 30-year-old also ranks fifth among NHL blueliners with 26:23 of ice time per game, while he's averaging 4.5 shots per game, one more than any other defenseman. In fact, Burns' 94 shots on goal this season rank second among all skaters, trailing only Alex Ovechkin. With his speed, ability to join in the rush and penchant for shooting from anywhere, Burns plays almost as a fourth forward when he's on the ice, making him one of the most dangerous Sharks players to mark.
In their current condition, the Sharks may seem unbeatable, having won six in a row with their top players all contribution and a starting goalie who has bloomed into a legitimate NHL starter. Chicago's lineup possesses the forward depth to counteract the talents of Pavelski and Joe Thornton, and the speed to skate with Burns and Marleau, so Wednesday's tilt will come down to execution. If the Blackhawks play like they did for the majority of Saturday's game in Vancouver, they should be able to establish their game in the offensive zone and keep San Jose at bay. The Sharks are +7 in the goals department at 5-on-5 despite posting less than stellar possession numbers, meaning they've been able to make their scoring chances count, so keeping their star players away from dangerous areas should be a key component of Chicago's game plan.