The Chicago Blackhawks are coping without injured star Patrick Sharp. On Friday night, though, they may have a key to this season's resurgence back in goal for the first time in more than a month.
Nikolai Khabibulin could get the start and the Blackhawks will look to extend their recent dominance over the surging Columbus Blue Jackets as the Central Division rivals face off at the United Center.
Playing in the final season of a four-year, $27 million contract, Khabibulin is 17-5-5 with a 2.37 goals-against average in 29 games. He's played particularly well at home, going 7-1-4 with a 2.01 GAA and one shutout.
But Khabibulin missed 13 games after being placed on injured reserve Feb. 12 with a sore groin. The 36-year-old was activated on Wednesday, but no immediate decision was made about him getting the start.
With Cristobal Huet and rookie Antti Niemi playing in place of Khabibulin, Chicago went 7-5-1. Despite that mediocre stretch, the Blackhawks have a six-point lead over fifth-place Vancouver in the Western Conference. Should the Blackhawks remain in fourth the rest of the way, they would have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs - someplace they haven't been since 2002.
"Every two points are important," defenseman Duncan Keith told the Blackhawks' official Web site. "There are still some games to be played, but we've got to take care of the home-ice advantage while we're here."
If Khabibulin plays, it would be his first action against Columbus in 2008-09. He's lost four of his last six starts versus the Blue Jackets, allowing at least four goals four times.
Chicago (37-19-9), though, has won five of its last six versus Ken Hitchcock's club, including two wins this season behind Huet.
On Nov. 1, he made 48 saves through overtime and denied three shootout attempts en route to the 4-3 win. He was back in net on Dec. 14, and after giving up a goal 1:35 in, finished with 31 saves in a 3-1 home victory.
Following two lackluster losses in which the Blackhawks allowed 10 goals, Chicago bounced back with a 3-2 shootout win over Carolina on Wednesday. Huet stopped former Blackhawk Sergei Samsonov in the fourth round after rookie Kris Versteeg had the go-ahead score.
One of four 20-goal scorers for the Blackhawks, Sharp has missed 11 games with a lower-body injury and it's not known when he may return. Martin Havlat, who has 21 goals and is tied for second with 57 points, could play after missing one game with the same injury as Sharp.
Columbus (35-27-6) comes in having won three straight against stiff competition. Following Saturday's 8-2 rout in Detroit and a 2-0 victory over Northeast-leading Boston on Tuesday, the Blue Jackets ended Pittsburgh's seven-game winning streak with a 4-3 shootout win on Thursday.
Rookie Steve Mason gave up three goals in a 3:25 span midway through the third period, but stopped Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the tiebreaker.
"Look who we beat in the last three games," Hitchcock said. "We beat Detroit, we beat Boston, we beat the hottest team in the NHL. It's hard. Every game is hard. There are no breathers. ... It's the way it is right now."
Kristian Huselius scored in regulation and had the only marker in the shootout. Jason Williams and Antoine Vermette each had a goal and assist as Columbus matched a franchise record for wins in a season set in 2005-06. Vermette has a goal and three assists in three games for the Blue Jackets since being acquired from the Ottawa Senators.
Rick Nash failed to find the back of the net after scoring five of his team-high 32 goals in a three-game streak. The Columbus captain has one assist in two games against the Blackhawks this season, and has been held without a point in six of his last seven games in Chicago.