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Coyotes are latest challenge on Blackhawks' road trip

by David Kalan

BLACKHAWKS (35-10-14) at COYOTES (26-20-10)


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

Season series: The Chicago Blackhawks have won each of their two games this season against the Phoenix Coyotes. Barring a matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this will be the final time Chicago and Phoenix meet in 2013-14.

Big story: The Blackhawks will be sending a League-high 10 players to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, while the Coyotes, no slouches in their own right, will be sending five. As the Blackhawks and Coyotes play their last and second-to-last game before the Olympic break, respectively, each team is currently embroiled in a tight race in the Western Conference playoff chase. As the Blackhawks look to hold off the rival St. Louis Blues atop the Central Division, the Coyotes are on the doorstep of the West's final wild card spot.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: No team in the NHL has more players heading to Sochi than Chicago, but as easy as it may be for players to look ahead to the impending Olympic tournament, Chicago's recent performance doesn't betray any lack of focus. The Blackhawks head into their visit to Phoenix winners of two straight against potential Stanley Cup contenders in the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings. Overall, Chicago, which is currently on a seven-game road trip while "Disney on Ice" occupies United Center, has gone 3-0-2 so far on a trip that has also included games against the San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames.

"I feel like the last month or so there was a lot of games that maybe we didn't play so well, but we were close and we just didn't find a way to get an extra point," captain Jonathan Toews said following the team's 2-0 win in Anaheim on Wednesday. "These last handful of games on this road trip, we're back to playing that smart team-style game that we want."

The recent recovery after a January that saw Chicago win just five of 14 games has enabled the Blackhawks to stave off the hard-charging Blues in the Central race; however, St. Louis still has a decided edge in terms of tiebreakers as well as games in hand.

Following the Olympics the Blackhawks will wrap up their road trip against the New York Rangers on Feb. 27 before returning to Chicago to host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field as part of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

Coyotes: In a departure from past seasons under coach Dave Tippett, Phoenix is scoring at a clip of 2.79 goals per game, its highest rate since 2005-06. However, while the Coyotes have begun to produce offensively they've suffered on the back end, surrendering 2.91 goals per game, and unsurprisingly, so has their record.

As Phoenix eyes a fourth playoff berth in the past five seasons, it has spent most of 2013-14 outside the West's top eight. Despite recent losses to the Dallas Stars and Buffalo Sabres, however, the Coyotes are still nipping on the Canucks' heels for the final wild card spot in the conference. While the Coyotes still have impressive wins against the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins over their current five-game homestand, the loss to the Stars, with whom the Coyotes are currently tied for ninth in the West, could prove particularly costly.

Phoenix does have one major advantage in the race in that it will have three games in hand on Vancouver when the puck drops on Friday. After hosting the Blackhawks, Phoenix will visit Dallas on Saturday in another game with significant playoff implications before the Olympic break begins.

"We're searching, talking about it," forward Lauri Korpikoski said in the Arizona Republic. "Just consistency is the biggest thing in this League. You do the same thing night after night. If we had the answer, we'd fix it but it just hasn't been there.

"We gotta keep working on it. We got two more games here, and hopefully we can get some points here and feel good about ourselves going into the Olympic break."

Who's hot: Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa has three goals and four assists in the past four games. … Coyotes forward Antoine Vermette is currently on an eight-game point streak, during which he has eight goals and three assists.

Injury report: Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya (lower body) is questionable for Friday, while goalie Nikolai Khabibulin (torn rotator cuff) is out for the season. Forward Patrick Kane will also miss the game so he can attend the funeral of his late grandfather. … The Coyotes will have a healthy lineup.

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