BLACKHAWKS (8-4-1) at COYOTES (9-6-0)
-- Blackhawks 7-3-0; Coyotes 6-4-0
-- This will be the first meeting of the season between Chicago and Phoenix. The Hawks dominated the season series in 2008-09, sweeping all four games by a combined 19-4 margin.
-- With the Coyotes no longer looking like an early-season wonder, Phoenix gets another litmus test for where they stand in the West's hierarchy when they host the Blackhawks. The Coyotes lost 4-1 at Colorado on Wednesday.
-- After a bumpy stretch in mid-October Chicago seems to have righted the ship. The Blackhawks closed out the month by winning three of their last four games, while Cristobal Huet
seems to have found his game again. After giving up a bizarre game-winner to Dallas' Stephane Robidas on Oct. 17, Huet rode the pine for a game and returned a week later with all the kinks seemingly worked out, backstopping the Hawks to three tight wins.
The offense might also be on its way back. Chicago scored just eight goals during Huet's recent strong stretch, but Patrick Sharp
scored a hard-fought game-winner against Montreal last Friday after going pointless the previous four games. Sharp was a major force early in the season, and a return to form would be a boon. Patrick Kane
, meanwhile has continued producing with four points in five games, and Chicago got more good news Wednesday as Jonathan Toews
skated for the first time in two weeks. At the midway point of a three-game road trip, it looks like everything may be coming together.
-- After taking their first two games of the season, the Coyotes looked like a nice early-season story, but since then Phoenix has made it very apparent that the Yotes aren't just a pleasant surprise. Phoenix closed out October by winning seven of its last nine games, and firmly entrenching itself in the thick of the West's playoff hunt with wins over the likes of San Jose, Boston, Detroit and Columbus.
Still, Phoenix may be itching for a win come Thursday. The Coyotes have lost two straight, including the loss Wednesday to West-leading Colorado, and netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, who leads the League with three shutouts, turned in an uncharacteristically poor performance in the third period. As they return home, Phoenix might need a win to prove its strong October wasn't an illusion.
-- Huet has kept the Hawks afloat while the offense has adjusted to life without Toews, winning three of four games while only giving up four goals. Winger Vernon Fiddler has been a productive force for the Coyotes recently, tallying at least one point in five of the last seven games.
-- Despite skating for the first time in two weeks, Toews is still questionable for Thursday with concussion-like symptoms. Ben Eager (concussion) returned to practice Monday, but is still not expected to play. Kurt Sauer
is still on injured reserve for Phoenix with headaches, while Scottie Upshall is questionable with a lower body injury after missing Wednesday's game in Colorado.
-- When Huet struggled in his first six starts, the French native wracked up an ugly 3.25 goals against average. But over the last four games, Huet has dropped his GAA nearly a full goal to 2.29, fifth-best in the League among goalies with 10 starts or more. That won't guarantee a win for Chicago, though. Instead, we may have dueling goaltenders. Phoenix's Ilya Bryzgalov is second with a 1.88 GAA.
-- As the Hawks look for their offense to pick up, continued strong play by Huet would make them a force to be reckoned with in the West, particularly if Toews returns in the near future. The game certainly presents a good test for the green Coyotes. With two losses in a row Phoenix needs to curtail its skid quickly, but this may not be the easiest game to do it. Home hasn't always been kind to the Coyotes, who have only won once in regulation at Jobing.com Arena this season, and their return to the desert comes against a team that appears to have their number. The Hawks outscored the Coyotes by 15 goals a season ago -- by far the most of any team they faced.