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Central: Blackhawks staying on the front page

by Larry Wigge /
The first thing you notice when you step into United Center these days is the excitement, the electricity and, yes, the anthem. If you don't get chills up your spine, you're unconscious.

When the game stars, there are no disguises with this speedy, young group of Chicago Blackhawks -- not even on the night before Halloween, when I was there and watched an energetic 3-2 comeback victory against the Montreal Canadiens on a late goal by Patrick Sharp, following a pretty backhand pass from deep in the Montreal zone by Patrick Kane.

"You can feel the buzz in this room and all around the city," veteran defenseman Duncan Keith said. "There's a definite carryover of excitement ... of having played three competitive playoff series in three of the toughest buildings to play in, in Calgary, Vancouver and Detroit."

Everything is headed forward in Chicago these days.

"We enjoyed the success of the playoff run and learned that there's still more to learn. There's still more work to be done," Keith said. "The expectations are all around us. But if you spend any time around us, you can see there's a want to be better."

As the Hawks took off on a six-game trip while the circus was in Chicago, there was more buzz that management was about to extend the contracts of rising, young forwards Jonathan Toews and Kane as well as Keith -- Toews and Kane reportedly are in line for five-year extensions at between $5.5 million and $6.5 million each, while Keith might be looking at a longer contract that is front-loaded to help ease the pain of the salary-cap hit.

"We all obviously would like to stay here and like it here," Kane said. "It's a good group of guys. And it's a good feeling to be wanted like this -- and to be a part of this group is pretty special."

That was a Page 1 story around Chicago, with multiple reports saying the deals were imminent. But there's no urgency to announce these deals now -- not to an organization that seems to get it.

Think about it for a moment: Why announce these signings on the road when you can milk it for days when the team gets back to Chicago for a game against Columbus on Dec. 1?

Instead of running with this story, however, look for another story to take center stage at some point Wednesday or Friday.

That story involves Marian Hossa -- Chicago's key free-agent acquisition July 1 who signed a 12-year, $62.8 million contract, but shortly after the announcement underwent shoulder surgery and has yet to play a game. That likely will come Wednesday in San Jose or Friday in Anaheim.

And you can bet coach Joel Quenneville can't wait to see the All-Star forward start showing the skills that helped him lead the Detroit Red Wings with 40 goals last season.

"From the first time he stepped on the ice at practice (Oct. 29), you could feel an electricity in the air," Quenneville said. "I couldn't believe the tempo of our practices when he was around. You just watch the way he can handle the puck and see plays and make plays."

"I feel better and better every day," Hossa said. "I've been with a few really good teams and this one is right there. The advantage with this team is that they are all young guys -- and they're just getting better and stronger. These guys are fast -- and young and they have lots of enthusiasm."

Quenneville just laughed at the coach's dilemma of putting Hossa on a power line with Toews and Kane or splitting up the riches.

"We have very interchangeable lines and combinations of players," Quenneville said. "Whether he's playing on a line with Johnny, and maybe that's who you start him with, I think there's definitely going to an upgrade to our lineup with his playmaking and puck skills. But there will also be a trickle-down effect of improvement on every line.

"I think as a coach it's a fun thing to have."

Added Kane: "He's a 40-goal scorer. And who knows? When he comes back, he might even score 40 again with the skill I've seen at practice. It seems like he scores on every shot."

Special delivery -- The Columbus Blue Jackets are out to prove that making the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons in 2008-09 was no fluke. And there's one very special item on their side this time around.

"Last year we always talked about special teams and how much better we could be if we had good power-play and penalty-killing units," captain Rick Nash said Nov. 16 after the Jackets scored both their regulation-time goals on the power play in a 3-2 shootout win against Edmonton.

The Jackets got two more power-play goals and one shorthanded goal in a 4-1 victory against Dallas three nights later in the first game of a five-game trip. In the second game, Anton Stralman netted a power-play goal with just 58 seconds left to send a game against Nashville to overtime.

For the record, Columbus was last in the League on the power play last season, converting on just 12.7 percent of its man-advantage situations, and their penalty killing was No. 13. This season, Columbus is second in the NHL on the power play at 25.3 percent and No. 19 on the penalty kill.

"It's amazing how many games you can win with a few more power-play scoring chances and one more goal," said Nash.

Ar-too in the playoff mix -- There may be those who still wonder if the Nashville Predators' lack of depth might hold the team back from getting back to the playoffs this season. Not as many doubters, though, when captain and power forward Jason Arnott is beginning to flex his muscles like he did when he scored both regulation goals in Nashville's 3-2 shootout victory against New Jersey on Nov. 19. That win gave the Preds a five-game winning streak and nine wins in their last 11 games going into Monday's game against Detroit.

He also had a power-play goal Saturday; they were his first goals since he scored three times in Nashville's first four games of the season. He has 6 goals in 15 games while missing time with an arm injury.

"You could tell that Arnie was hurting, but he stayed in the lineup," said Steve Sullivan, who has been on the team's No. 1 line with J.P Dumont and Arnott when the threesome is healthy. "In those few games that Jason did sit out, you could see we were missing a big body, a big leader. And that affects wins and losses."

Added goaltender Dan Ellis: "We don't have an abundance of talent and we don't have a sure-fire sniper, expect maybe Jason Arnott. So we need everyone to pitch in offensively -- forwards and defensemen alike. We need to score by committee and we need to score with grit. And that all starts with Arnie."

Sick move -- New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit has seen a lot playing hockey, but he never had seen anything like what St. Louis' David Perron did Saturday.

"I didn't expect him to pass the puck to himself through his legs," said Streit.

Perron scored twice in the third period to give the Blues a 4-1 win against the Islanders, the second one coming when he entered the New York zone with Streit and goaltender Dwayne Roloson standing between him and a scoring chance.

After that pass to himself, Perron skated around Streit, went to his forehand and beat Roloson high into the net before getting drilled to the ice.

Perron leads the Blues with 9 goals and is tied with Andy McDonald for second in scoring with 13 points.

"When he's aggressive and when he's playing with a little bit of an edge, he's a good player," said Blues coach Andy Murray. "But when he's not moving his feet and when he's not getting his nose dirty, he doesn't create the space. I really liked that power move to shield the guy off and get to the net."

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