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Canucks ready for showdown with Hawks

by David Kalan

BLACKHAWKS (27-20-4) at CANUCKS (33-10-9)


Last 10 -- Chicago 6-3-1; Vancouver 5-2-3

Season series -- The teams wrap up their four-game series. Chicago leads 2-1, but Vancouver took the last meeting by winning 3-0 at the United Center on Dec. 3.

Big story -- While the Canucks are surging in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks seem to be the one demon they haven't overcome after losing to Chicago in the last two postseasons. Vancouver will get one last chance to put those concerns to rest in its season-series finale with the Hawks, who play Game 2 of a six-game trip.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks -- Chicago has begun to look more like a team that's ready to defend its Stanley Cup title by winning six of its last nine games -- but the Hawks are still caught in the middle of the West's dogfight for the conference's final playoff berth. The task of sewing up a playoff spot will also be considerably more difficult for Chicago this month, as Friday night's trip to Vancouver will be the second stop on a six-game road swing to open the second half of the season.

While building some momentum on a two-week road trip won't be easy, the Hawks managed to open the trip the right way with a 7-4 win in Columbus on Tuesday night -- largely thanks to a three-point night from Jonathan Toews. This was one of the few times all season that the Blackhawks' top guns were all healthy and producing, as Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have all notched points in bunches lately. With goaltender Corey Crawford likely to get the start after sitting Tuesday, that type of offensive support will prove handy for a netminder who is struggling after losing his last two starts.

Canucks -- Many expected the Canucks to be good this season, but not everyone thought they'd be quite this good. Vancouver has been the hottest team in the League in recent weeks, riding a current four-game winning streak in which they've outscored the opposition 19-3 to the NHL's best record -- the first time the Canucks have been atop the League standings in seven years. Vancouver's dominating 6-0 win at Phoenix on Wednesday gave the Canucks a seven-point cushion over Detroit for the top spot in the West, an advantage that could prove pivotal as the Canucks try to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 17 years.

Perhaps most impressive about Vancouver's recent run is that most of the scoring hasn't come from the Sedin twins. If Henrik and Daniel Sedin are still coping with playing against each other for the first time in the lives at this past weekend's All-Star Game, the rest of the lineup has more than picked up the slack, with Ryan Kesler is leading the way with eight points in his last seven games. Mikael Samuelsson has done his part with six points during Vancouver's recent winning streak, Alex Burrows has scored in four straight, and even 2008 first-round pick Cody Hodgson has gotten in the mix, scoring his first NHL goal in just his second career game Wednesday night.

Who's hot -- Tuesday's three-point performance was no outlier for Toews. "Captain Serious" has 7 points in his last five games. ... Offense hasn't been the only story in British Columbia lately. Goalie Roberto Luongo has stopped 74 of the last 76 shots he's faced while winning three in a row.

Injury report -- Forward Ryan Johnson is questionable for Chicago with a lower-body injury, while Vancouver may be without Aaron Volpatti, who missed Wednesday's win against Phoenix with a rib injury. The Canucks are also still coping with a thin blue line after losing Alex Edler late last month due to a back injury that required surgery.

Stat pack -- Building off last year's eye-opening performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Kesler has reached new heights this season, as his two-score performance at Phoenix lifted him to the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career. At his current pace, the Livonia, Mich., native will finish the season with 47 goals -- nearly double his previous career-high of 26.

Puck drop -- The Canucks are more than aware that this is their last regular-season meeting with the team that sent them packing in each of the last two playoffs. With a third potential postseason meeting with the Blackhawks not an impossibility, the Canucks need to gain the mental edge against a team that has had their number for two seasons.

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