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Canadiens wary of struggling Blackhawks

by Arpon Basu

BLACKHAWKS (29-8-9) at CANADIENS (25-15-5)


Last 10: Chicago 5-1-4; Montreal 5-3-2

Season series: This is the first of two games between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks this season. The Original Six rivals have not played each other since Dec. 21, 2011, and this is the first game between the two in Montreal since April 5, 2011.

Big story: The Blackhawks arrive in Montreal in the midst of their worst six-game stretch of the season; they are 2-1-3 in that span. The lone regulation loss came in Chicago's last game, 3-2 at home to the New York Rangers. It snapped a stretch of 10 straight games where the Blackhawks picked up at least a point in the standings, something most teams would be thrilled with. But for the powerhouse Blackhawks, it could be considered a slump.

While the Canadiens could think this is the perfect time to face the Blackhawks, they don't.

"We've got the best team in the world coming in," defenseman P.K. Subban said after practice Friday, "so that's where my focus is."

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: The Blackhawks "slump" goes hand-in-hand with the recent struggles of their top scorer. Right wing Patrick Kane enters the game with one assist in his past five games, a stretch that marked the end of a 14-game point streak during which Kane amassed 25 points.

In an attempt to rectify the problem, coach Joel Quenneville is expected to line up Marcus Kruger at center with Kane, replacing his usual center Michal Handzus.

"I appreciate the energy he brings, the consistency he brings, the reliability on both sides of the puck," Quenneville said of Kruger, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "I see improvement in his game. … I think he's got that will to find a way to contribute any way he can. I think he's really moved up the ladder in a lot of people's eyes around this locker room."

Kruger, 23, has 18 points in 43 games this season and is tied with Jonathan Toews for the team lead in faceoff percentage at 56.8 percent.

Montreal-area native Corey Crawford will make his second career start in his hometown, after losing his first 2-1 in overtime.

Canadiens: The Canadiens have relied all season on a potent power play that not only provided them with a source of offense but also kept opposing teams honest, serving as a deterrent to taking penalties against them.

On Dec. 19, the Canadiens had the NHL's sixth-ranked power play at 22.4 percent. But since then they have gone 3-for-33 with the man advantage, including 0-for-11 in their past three games, to fall to 11th in the League at 19.6 percent prior to games Friday.

Montreal spent a lot of time working on the power play at practice Friday, and the team is well aware how important it is to get whatever isn't working fixed.

"Our power play needs to be better," coach Michel Therrien said. "We worked on it this morning and talked about it with our team. Our execution needs to be better, we need better decisions with the puck -- when to pass, when to shoot. We seem a bit confused right now."

Who's hot: For the Blackhawks, left wing Patrick Sharp has three goals and three assists and Toews has a goal and four assists during four-game point streaks for the pair of Canadian Olympians. … For the Canadiens, center Tomas Plekanec has a goal and three assists while right wing Brian Gionta has two goals and an assist as both are on three-game point streaks.

Injury report: The Blackhawks are missing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin (rotator cuff). …The Canadiens are missing defenseman Davis Drewiske (shoulder), forward Alex Galchenyuk (hand) and forward Ryan White (upper body).

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