The Chicago Blackhawks have been atop the NHL standings since Feb. 2 thanks largely to a start to the season that had never been seen in the League's history.
The Blackhawks suffered three losses – all in shootouts – over their first 24 games, with the third also serving as their only setback over a 16-game stretch from Feb. 2 to March 6.
That one loss came at home against the Anaheim Ducks, a 3-2 defeat that marks the only time the Blackhawks have squandered a third-period lead and lost this season. That win was the second in a streak in which the Ducks went 13-1-3.
Wednesday night, the NHL's two best teams, the Blackhawks and Ducks, will collide in Anaheim (10 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CSN-CH, FS-W) in a battle for Western Conference bragging rights.
The Blackhawks have 51 points in 29 games; the Ducks have 46 points in 28 games. The Blackhawks and Ducks are in the top five in goals per game and goals-against per game, and their combined five regulation losses are fewer than every team in the NHL except the Montreal Canadiens, who have five.
Right Wing - CHI
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 37
SOG: 80 | +/-: 15
How do the Blackhawks and Ducks stack up against each other? Let's take a look:
Both teams boast offensive stars -- Chicago has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa; Anaheim has Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan -- but they also have scoring depth up front. Chicago's Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell would have a good chance at 20 goals if this were an 82-game season, and Anaheim is receiving career seasons from Andrew Cogliano (10 goals), Saku Koivu (eight) and Kyle Palmieri (seven). That doesn't include Teemu Selanne's six goals and 18 points.
Both teams are scoring in excess of three goals per game, but with Chicago's Patrick Sharp injured and Hossa's status in doubt because of an injury, the Anaheim forwards enter this matchup in better shape even with Perry serving his four-game suspension.
Along the blue line, it's not quite as even. The Blackhawks have arguably the best group of six defensemen in the League: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya and either Michal Rozsival or Sheldon Brookbank. They defend well and contribute offensively, and that unit is largely responsible for holding the opposition to 26.5 shots per game, fourth-best in the League.
Defense - ANA
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 18
SOG: 45 | +/-: 19
The Ducks aren't slouches. Francois Beauchemin
is playing Norris-worthy hockey at both ends, and Sheldon Souray
has been everything they wanted when they signed him this summer. It's a steady group, but it doesn't match up to the one in Chicago.
When it comes to this category, it's as if each team is looking in a mirror.
They have split the workload between their goalies pretty evenly. Chicago's Corey Crawford has made 17 starts; Ray Emery has made 12. Anaheim's Jonas Hiller has started 15 times; Viktor Fasth has made 13. Fasth and Emery were backups, but injuries to Hiller and Crawford led to increased roles.
Assuming it's Fasth, who made 28 saves in Anaheim's win against Chicago this season, and Crawford, who has allowed two goals in his past two starts, it's a category that is too close to call.
Take a look at the NHL's power-play leaders and this one appears to be a no-brainer: the Ducks rank second at 24.7 percent, the Blackhawks are 13th at 18.6 percent. But in power-play goals scored, the Ducks have 20, the Blackhawks have 19. Chicago has had 21 more opportunities this season than Anaheim but has not finished as many.
Wednesday night, the NHL's two best teams, the Blackhawks and Ducks, will collide in Anaheim in a battle for Western Conference bragging rights. (Photo: Getty Images)
Of late, the Blackhawks are surging with the man-advantage, having scored on five of 22 chances (22.7 percent) over their past eight games; the Ducks are 1-for-17 in the past seven games.
Due to the latest trend, the Blackhawks, despite lacking Sharp and possibly Hossa, have the edge here.
The special-teams matchup flips in this area: the Blackhawks are 10th in the League at killing penalties at 83.2 percent; the Ducks rank 24th at 78.6 percent. But of late, the Ducks have been figuring it out while the Blackhawks have faltered.
Since Feb. 27, Anaheim has killed 29 of 33 penalties, an 87.9 percent clip. The Ducks allowed multiple power-play goals in five of their first 10 games but have been much steadier since then. The Blackhawks have been porous on the PK of late, allowing seven goals in their past 13 shorthanded situations.
Even if Hossa does play, the Ducks are the hot penalty-killing team now.
Chicago's Joel Quenneville is 24-2-3; Anaheim's Bruce Boudreau is 21-3-4. Let's agree they're
both in the Jack Adams hunt and move forward.
Every team has weaknesses, but these squads have holes on a microscopic level. Both enter this showdown on fire, but with the Blackhawks a bit banged up and the Ducks playing in their home building, where they have won a franchise-record 12 straight games, the pendulum swings ever so slightly toward the Ducks on Wednesday.