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Blackhawks head to San Jose for big test

by David Kalan /

BLACKHAWKS (15-5-2) at SHARKS (16-5-4)

Last 10 -- Blackhawks 8-1-1; Sharks 6-3-1

Season series -- The Hawks lead the season series 1-0 after closing out their recent homestand with a 4-3 overtime win against the Sharks on Nov. 15. Brent Seabrook's game-winning goal 41 seconds into extra time capped Chicago's comeback from a 3-1 deficit.

Big story -- San Jose is hot, but the Hawks are even hotter. As they enter the second week of their "Circus Trip," the Blackhawks, who will also have Marian Hossa for the first time, are riding a seven-game winning streak that includes a three-game sweep through Western Canada.

Team Scope

Blackhawks -- There aren't many better times to be a Blackhawk. Chicago is in the midst of its biggest test of the season, six games in Western Canada and California, and so far the Hawks are passing with flying colors. Chicago swept through the first half of its six-game sojourn by winning at Calgary (7-1), Edmonton (5-2) and Vancouver (1-0) in a four-day span. The biggest challenge so far will come against the Sharks, who currently have the top record in the League. But having beaten San Jose 10 days ago, the Hawks certainly won't want for confidence.

But perhaps most important for Chicago is the expected season debut of the off-season's biggest catch -- Hossa. After inking a 12-year, $62.8 million contract in July, Hossa had shoulder surgery that has kept him on the sidelines. With Hossa in the lineup, Chicago's offense -- already sixth in the League in goals per game -- is likely to be even more dangerous.

Sharks -- The Sharks may not have won their last seven games -- their current winning streak is only two -- but with a League-leading 36 points, San Jose is firmly on track for a repeat as the Presidents' Trophy winner. Second-year coach Todd McLellan has put his top three scorers on the same line for the past two games, and the results have been astounding. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and newcomer Dany Heatley have combined for 6 goals and 7 assists in that stretch, including Heatley's second hat trick of the season on Friday.

"Good players make each other better, and that's what's going on right now," Thornton said. "The scary part is that I think we can get better."

At the other end of the ice, Evgeni Nabokov has been sharp between the pipes. Nabokov hasn't lost in regulation in more than a month, going 9-0-3 with a 1.71 goals against average in his last 12 starts.

Who's hot -- Lost in the production of San Jose's top line has been the improvement of left wing Ryane Clowe. The Newfoundland native has scored in two straight games and tallied 13 points in his last 12 games. Chicago's Jonathan Toews has six points over his last four games, while Kris Versteeg scored three times in the first three games of the Hawks' road trip.

Injury report -- With Hossa's debut, the only missing pieces for the Hawks are Adam Burish, who has yet to play this year after knee surgery, and Dave Bolland, who is out following back surgery. San Jose is without Rob Blake and Devin Setoguchi, who are both on IR, while Brad Staubitz and Jody Shelley are listed as questionable.

Stat pack -- Hossa picked the right opponent for his debut as a Hawk. The highly sought-after sniper scored 40 goals and tallied 31 assists in 74 games with Detroit last season -- and seven of those points came in the Wings' four games against San Jose.

Puck drop -- For a regular-season game, it doesn't get much better than this. Wednesday night's matchup at the Tank will pit two of the NHL's best offenses and two of its hottest goaltenders -- Chicago's Cristobal Huet has matched Nabokov with a torrid stretch of his own, registering a 1.81 GAA in his last six starts -- against one another. With arguably the two best teams in the West, and possibly the League going toe-to-toe in San Jose, the potential playoff preview gives the Sharks a chance to firmly establish themselves atop the standings, while the Hawks will have an eye towards taking their first two games with San Jose and making a play for the conference's top seed.

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