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Central: Blackhawks look to shore up road game

by Phil Coffey
Chicago is in the rear-view mirror as the Blackhawks spend the remainder of January on the road, currently on an eight-game road trip that ends on Jan. 30 in North Carolina.

Heading into Tuesday's game in Edmonton, the Blackhawks are 3-2-0 with the Oilers, Sharks and Hurricanes punching out the rest of the road dance card.

At 35-13-4, Chicago remains one of the NHL's elite, four points back of San Jose for the Western Conference lead, so a 4-1 loss in Ottawa and a 5-1 loss in Vancouver are no cause for panic, but there are some areas worth tightening.

"We knew this road trip was coming along," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. "We knew what it was going to be like, being away from home for a long time, so there's no excuse there."

As Chris Kuc reported in the Chicago Tribune, coach Joel Quenneville would like to get the goaltending in order. Backup Antti Niemi started back-to-back games, a 3-1 win against Calgary and was pulled from the loss to Vancouver. So, figure on Cristobal Huet heading back into the net Tuesday.

"(Vancouver) had pucks at the net, loose stuff we didn't clear," said Quenneville, defending Niemi. "Second and third opportunities there. Our 'D' is pretty good at clearing that loose stuff, but they ended up going in. ... It's a long trip. Let's get back going."

Truth be told, the 'Hawks realize they now bring out the best in the opposition this season, based on their success in 2008-09. They are a measuring stick.

"We're doing lots of good things," Marian Hossa said. "We have three more games on the road (and) we just have to face it's going to be tough. Teams are going to be ready for us and we have to respond."

Quenneville agreed.

"From the outset this year teams are ready to play us," he said. "We have to make sure we know they're going be excited about every game. With our team, we want to make sure our starts are good and get ourselves into games right away."

Help is on the way --
Believe it or not, the Detroit Red Wings may soon be getting players back in the lineup for a change.

Defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who has been out since Nov. 21 with a sprained left medial collateral ligament, and Tomas Holmstrom, out since Jan. 6 because of a broken foot, could be back this week and forward Jason Williams, in witness protection since Nov. 7 with a broken right leg, isn't too far away either.

"It's been a tough run," Kronwall told Dana Wakiji of the Detroit News. "I'm just glad to be on the ice again. Now, I know it's getting really close. So just try to be out there as much as possible and do what I can. Right now, I can do everything and it feels really good day after day. It's a good sign. It's just a matter of getting the legs back and the lungs back. A few more practices and I should be good to go."

Holmstrom is targeting the weekend for his return.

"I've been skating a couple times, three times this week with Willy (Williams) and Kronner (Kronwall) and just you get out there for a spin and stick handling and stuff like that, nothing really serious skating," Holmstrom said. "It didn't feel that good. I can't really push away."

"If I can get in and play sometime next week, that would be great," Williams said. "That's something that I'm striving for. Each day I go out there, I feel better. I'd just like to get a couple practices underneath me where I'm banged around a little bit and taking some one-on-ones, some three-on-twos, and just sort of testing it out that way as well. I definitely feel a lot better, I feel confident in my skating and things like that. It's just the bumps and the grinds and things, I've got to see how that will react to it."

"It's been ridiculous how many injuries we've had, major injuries, too," Kronwall said. "Just to see guys back and see the passion, everybody just wants to win, night in and night out. It's great to see one after the other just come back. Hopefully, we can continue winning."

Feeling Blue over lead losses --
The St. Louis Blues are 3-0-1 in their last four home games, which gets the Blues closer to the .500 mark at home, 9-14-4. But as the shootout loss to the Ducks on Saturday illustrated, the Blues still have a terribly tough time holding on to a lead. The Ducks came back from a three-goal deficit and forced overtime in the final 30 seconds of play.

"We had taken some steps the last half dozen games," Blues center Andy McDonald told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But for whatever reason, we seem to revert back to falling apart in the third period. I don't know how many games we've given away leads in the third period."

Eight is the answer and St. Louis is a less-than-satisfactory 15-2-6 record when leading after two periods.

Rutherford also points out the Blues have lost the lead with less than a minute left five times and once more under two minutes.

"It's scary how many points we've given up," McDonald said. "We'd certainly be in a different position and probably a lot closer to a playoff spot if we closed out third periods and played like we've been in that position before. It just seems like we're a fragile team."

"I just think the composure is just not there at times in the third," goalie Chris Mason said. "I think it's that 'Here we go again' mentality, and you can't have that and win. Teams are too good."

New coach Davis Payne knows time is running out if the Blues don't stop wasting leads.

"It's not a 10-step process, it's not a 12-step process," Payne said. "This is a daily thing that has got to get ingrained in these guys."

Loss to Wild frustrates Columbus -- After a dreadful slump that seemed endless, the Columbus Blue Jackets are 5-5-0 in their last 10 games, certainly an improvement, but not one the players are crowing about.

Especially after a 4-2 loss in Minnesota on Saturday that seemed to frustrate the players no end.

"Yeah, it's frustration," Rick Nash said. "We're desperate for points, and we have to start getting them pretty quick here."

"We came in here off a pretty good game in Boston (on Thursday)," winger Jared Boll told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. "But these guys took it to us pretty good right away. We were behind early, and it's tough to come back in this building."

When you consider Columbus scored their goals in the final minute of the game, you can begin to understand the frustration.

One of the most frustrated was goalie Steve Mason, who allowed a "bad" goal to Eric Belanger that made it 3-0 early in the second period. Belanger's shot from the top of the right circle wasn't tipped or screened, but it did end up in the net.

"It was a mistake on my part," Mason said. "There are a lot of things that led up to the goal. I tried to block it with my stick, and it ended up going through my five hole. It's my mistake, and that's all there is to it."

"The third goal Mase should have stopped," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He kept fighting, so we decided to stay with him. But you can't afford to have goals like that go in."

Trotz picks one ... maybe -- The Nashville Predators may well select one goalie to carry the load the rest of the way. Coach Barry Trotz told John Glennon of The Tennessean that a strong effort by Pekka Rinne against Colorado Friday night (a 2-1 loss) would likely earn Rinne a start against Columbus Tuesday and halt the rotation with Dan Ellis for the time being.

"You're looking for signs that someone is getting in a groove," Trotz said. "If Peks has a real strong game (against the Avalanche), I'll probably come back with him.

"They dictate who plays, not me. A lot of decisions that coaches make are based on players' performance. If someone starts taking the ball and running with it, then we'll go with them."

Nashville has alternated its goalies in every situation but one over the past 13 games, going 7-6 during that stretch.

"It's tough for me to say," Rinne said. "You don't want to break anything that works, but we've lost a few games now. Personally, I've had one or two not-so-great games (during the rotation). But I want to get back there and build from this one."

Around the Central -- The Blues placed defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (lower body) on injured reserve Sunday. The club recalled defenseman Tyson Strachan from AHL Peoria. ... The Canucks-Blackhawks rivalry is becoming one of the most intense in the NHL. "We don't like those guys very much," Canucks defenseman Shane O'Brien said. ... After four games of the road trip the line of John Madden, Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien still was looking for its first point. ... Chris Osgood was sorry about the negative comments he made toward Mike Babcock over playing time. Osgood is frustrated about losing the top job to Jimmy Howard and made a couple snarky comments about the coach. "That was just emotions that got to me," Osgood told the Detroit Free Press. "That's not what I'm like at all. Mike and I have always had good conversations and work together well. We talked and everything is good. ... But I know what I have to do. Howie is playing really well, and my job partially is to help him along, be a good teammate for him. At the same time, I still want to play. But the bottom line is, we need to win games, get points and get into the playoffs. I'm on board with that 100 percent." ... On a funnier note, the lockers of Henrik Zetterberg (Sweden) and Valtteri Filppula (Finland) are side-by-side in the Wings' dressing room. Zetterberg on Saturday laid a line of tape between their two spaces. "Olympics are getting close," Zetterberg joked to the Detroit News. "Have to establish boundaries." ... Jason Arnott has been slumping, scoring just once in his past 15 games. He has 12 goals in 40 games this season. "If you're an offensive player and you're not scoring, you're not happy about your game," coach Barry Trotz said. "I think that's what drives you and those are the expectations you have for yourself. You tend to get frustrated. It's all a mind-set. If you keep a real positive mind-set and keep doing the right things over and over again, it will come around."
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