BLACKHAWKS (30-10-3) at BRUINS (22-13-7)
-- Chicago 8-2-0; Boston 6-3-1.
-- The Hawks lead the season series, 1-0, after holding off the Bruins in a 5-4 shootout win on Dec. 18 at the United Center.
-- The Bruins will look to make up some ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race as they host the red hot Blackhawks in an "Original Six" showdown.
-- It might sound crazy, but until recently, the Blackhawks weren't performing as well as they could have.
They are now.
Chicago spent a quarter of the season without its big offseason pickup, Marian Hossa
. The Slovak winger has contributed since his debut, but after a recent three-game scoreless streak Hossa has caught fire, tallying seven points in his last four games including back-to-back two-goal performances. Combine that with Patrick Sharp
's five points in the last four games, and Kris Versteeg's six points in the last five, and Chicago is seemingly getting offense from everywhere.
The result is a team with a comfortable 10-point cushion in the Central Division and the most points in the League with 63. The Blackhawks' only concern might be that they're peaking too soon. At the very least, coach Joel Quenneville is making sure his players get adequate rest over the marathon season. Cristobal Huet
will have the night off Thursday, as backup Antti Niemi will make his second start in three games, but Chicago won't have to worry about compensating with more offense. Niemi has won seven of his last eight starts while pitching three shutouts along the way.
-- Thursday will be the first home game for the B's since their overtime win over Philadelphia in the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Boston has split the two road games its played since knocking off the Flyers in Fenway Park, but overall the Bruins have won six of their last eight, including a 4-1 victory in Ottawa Tuesday night. While Boston still trails Buffalo by seven points in the Northeast Division, the Bruins look to be in comfortable position to make the playoffs as the season hits its midway point. Boston's 51 points have it fifth in the East, just four points behind the fourth-place Penguins and six clear of Montreal in the final spot in the top eight.
Boston has gotten scoring from unlikely sources lately, as Blake Wheeler has three goals and two assists in the last two games, while David Krejci
may be finding his form of a season ago with four points in the last three games. Those types of contributions are about to become even more important in the near term. The Bruins found out this week that Patrice Bergeron
, and his 31 points, will be out for 2-3 weeks with a broken right thumb.
-- Boston netminder Tim Thomas
appears well past his early-season struggles. The U.S. Olympian has a 5-1 record in his last six starts with a 1.50 goals-against average over that stretch. Meanwhile, Chicago has a number of third and fourth-liners who have been lost in the shuffle behind the Hawks' top performers. One of which is right wing Troy Brouwer, who has quietly tallied three goals and an assist over the last five games.
-- Cam Barker is questionable for Thursday with an upper-body injury, while Boston could, in addition to Bergeron, be without Andrew Ference
, who is questionable for undisclosed reasons.
-- Patrick Kane
has been scorching of late with 15 points in the last nine games, but perhaps more impressive is that Kane hasn't gone consecutive games without a point since Oct. 17 -- a stretch of 35 games. Not to be outdone, Jonathan Toews
hasn't been scoreless twice in a row since Oct. 8, the third game of the season.
-- The Bruins have a tough task in front of them. The Hawks have won 12 of their last 14 games with a spate of impressive victories over the League's elite on their resume. With a streaking Hossa complementing Kane and Toews, the Hawks' offense is getting even better. If there is a goaltender who can keep Chicago's weapons at bay, however, it may be Thomas. With last season's Vezina Trophy-winner between the pipes, goaltending may be Boston's only edge.