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Blackhawks host Coyotes in battle of heavyweights

by David Kalan

COYOTES (13-4-2) at BLACKHAWKS (12-2-4)


Last 10: Phoenix 8-2-0; Chicago 7-1-2

Season series: This is the first meeting of the season between the Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks won two of three games against the Coyotes in 2012-13.

Big story: Many expected the defending Stanley Cup champions to be among the NHL's elite again, but fewer probably pegged the Coyotes to be there too. Phoenix has looked every bit the part so far this season, and the Coyotes will get another big challenge, and a chance to prove they're among the League's best, when they visit the Blackhawks on Thursday.

Team Scope:

Coyotes: It seems lately that each game is another statement win for Phoenix. It came away with a huge two points in its previous outing, a 3-2 overtime win against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday. Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored the game-winner to give the Coyotes their seventh win in eight games. Giving Ekman-Larsson a chance to play hero was goalie Mike Smith, who was stellar again with 37 saves.

"We didn't have enough players competing at the speed and level we needed to, but give our goalie credit; he played very well," coach Dave Tippett said afterward. "We had a few players who really jumped in and we found a way to get two points."

Over the past two weeks the Coyotes have wins against several Western Conference heavyweights, including the Blues, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.

Blackhawks: Considering the impressive start to the season by the Colorado Avalanche, Chicago was in danger of spending its title defense playing catch-up in the Central Division. Less than a quarter of the way through the schedule, Chicago appears to have caught up.

The Blackhawks have won six of their past seven games and haven't lost in regulation since a 5-3 defeat to the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 26. Chicago is tied with Colorado atop the division, and while the Avalanche have a game in hand, the Blackhawks have one fewer regulation loss.

Chicago should be well-rested. The Blackhawks have had three days off with no travel since their previous game, a wild 5-4 win against the Edmonton Oilers in which Chicago scored three times in the third period. The four goals surrendered did present some concern for a team that is usually defensively sound.

"The first couple weeks, or month, we were winning 3-2 or 2-1, and now it's kind of like the opposite," forward Bryan Bickell said afterward. "It's nice to get the offense, but I know it's not always going to be like that. We need to play defense first and keep the puck out of our net, and I think the offense will come."

Who's hot: Smith has won six of his past seven starts and is 11-3-2 despite facing 555 shots, the highest figure in the League. … Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp has a goal and six assists in his past three games.

Injury report: Phoenix forwards Martin Hanzal (illness) and Radim Vrbata (lower body) missed the win Tuesday but will be in the lineup Thursday. Defenseman Derek Morris (lower body) is on injured reserve, but is getting closer to returning. … Chicago center Brad Mills (lower body) has missed two games and is questionable. Center Michal Handzus (hand) remains out. Defenseman Michael Kostka (lower body) is on IR and unlikely to return until December.

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