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Blackhawks face road test against Ovechkin, Capitals

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

After completing a four-game homestand sweep, the Blackhawks will try to take their winning ways on the road, with three of their next four contests away from the United Center. Their first test will be against the surging Washington Capitals, who have won seven consecutive outings, including a confident 5-2 result over division rival Pittsburgh on Wednesday to lift the team into second place in the Metropolitan, one point behind Columbus. With Washington and Chicago tied for second in the overall league rankings (the Capitals do have three games in hand), Friday's tilt should be a high-paced battle between heavyweights from opposing conferences.

The Blackhawks were last in action on Tuesday, when they outlasted the Detroit Red Wings in an end-to-end battle that ended 4-3 in overtime, in which every single skater logged at least one shot on goal. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time this has happened in a regular-season game since March 1997. The 43-36 shot count wasn't exactly flattering to the Blackhawks defense, and they'll need to tighten up against a Washington roster that boasts plenty of goal-scoring potential.

Washington didn't have to wait long on Wednesday for a reason to celebrate -- with a goal just 35 seconds into the game, captain Alex Ovechkin became the first player in franchise history to reach 1,000 career points; he added a second tally later in the game for his 1,001th point. He became the sixth active NHL player to reach the milestone, and fittingly enough his two tallies moved him past Maurice Richard, whose eponymous trophy Ovechkin has won six times in his career, on the NHL's all-time scoring list.

Ovechkin now has nine points (5G, 4A) over his last seven games dating back to New Year's Eve, combining effectively with frequent linemate Nicklas Backstrom, who collected a goal and three helpers against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, giving him eight points over his last four outings. Stopping the Capitals often means keeping their top duo off the scoresheet, and the Blackhawks were able to do that in their first meeting of the season, a 3-2 overtime loss on Nov. 11.

Several Blackhawks are nearing milestones of their own. Marian Hossa, who reached 1,100 points back in November, is one assist away from 600 in his career, and defenseman Brian Campbell needs one more point to reach the 500 mark. If he can clinch two points on Friday, Corey Crawford will be one win away from 200.

The Blackhawks' top players have produced consistently over the recent stretch of wins -- Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are all working on decent point streaks -- but one line that has been able to contribute is the third unit of Tanner Kero, Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik, who have been able to take advantage of favorable matchups to make an impact on the scoresheet.

Hartman has played up and down the lineup, but the rookie's production has kicked up a notch in recent weeks, thanks in part to his first career hat trick last Sunday against Nashville; with a pair of helpers on Tuesday, he now has four goals and three assists over his last six contests. He's been playing alongside Tanner Kero, who recorded his first points of the season in his last two tilts and had a season-best four shots on goal against Detroit. Rounding out the trio, Panik posted a goal and an assist on Tuesday, setting a career high for points in a season; his previous best was 17 points in 76 regular-season games with Toronto in 2014-15, and he needs one more tally and two more helpers to reach high water marks in those areas.

"I think we've been getting a little more confident and a little more comfortable together," Kero said after the game on Tuesday. "We just try to focus on being good defensively, being good in our end, and then just try to use our speed. Be hard on the forecheck, create turnovers, and then try to get chances off the rush and capitalize."   

Washington and Chicago are perhaps best-known for their ability to rack up goals, but both teams have also received excellent goaltending en route to their current records. Crawford picked up three of the Blackhawks' last four wins, stopping 75 of 83 shots; since returning from injury in late December, the 32-year-old is 4-2-1 with a .919 save percentage, and he shares ninth among NHL netminders with a .925 SV% in 27 starts this year.

Crawford's opponent will be World Cup of Hockey teammate Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner who has been on the top of his game since December. Holtby has three shutouts in his last nine starts, including back-to-back blankings against Columbus and Ottawa last week. Overall, the 27-year-old ranks second among NHL starters with a 1.90 goals-against average and third with a .932 SV%.

"Both goalies have really moved up the ladder as far as how they're viewed around the league," Head Coach Joel Quenneville told reporters on Thursday after practice. "Before they were establishing themselves as a clear no. 1, and now they've gone up to be top guys. Certainly both guys deserved to be in the World Cup, and both guys have proven in the last few years that they keep getting better."

CHI: Marcus Kruger (upper body)
WSH: none


Hinostroza -- Toews -- Hossa
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Kane
Hartman -- Kero -- Panik
Desjardins -- Rasmussen -- Tootoo

Keith -- Hjalmarsson
Campbell -- Seabrook
van Riemsdyk -- Rozsival


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