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Coyotes chase 10th straight in battle with Blackhawks

by David Kalan
COYOTES (46-22-5) at BLACKHAWKS (45-19-7)

Last 10: Phoenix 9-1-0; Chicago 4-4-2

Season series:
Phoenix has already clinched the season series with Chicago, a valuable tiebreaker should these two wind up deadlocked atop the standings. The Coyotes have taken all three meetings so far this year, the most recent a 5-4 shootout win last Saturday at Arena.

Big story: With the season winding down to its final weeks, the Blackhawks will face the surprising Coyotes in a veritable four-pointer in the race for the West's top seed.

Team Scope:

It's no surprise that Chicago is fighting for top honors in the West this year, but Phoenix's arrival at the top of conference hierarchy is no less than stunning. Before this season the Coyotes' very existence was uncertain, but first-year coach Dave Tippett has deftly steered his troops through a strong campaign that has them all but assured of the first playoff berth in the desert in eight years.

To reach the postseason a season after tying for the second-worst record in the West would be impressive enough, but Phoenix has won nine straight games, landing it in a tie with Chicago for the top seed in the West as the regular season nears its terminus. A 10th straight win Tuesday would set a franchise record for the 'Yotes, who hadn't won nine in a row since March 27, 1985, when the franchise was still known as the Winnipeg Jets. While Phoenix's winning streak has coincided with the acquisition of Lee Stempniak, who has nine goals in nine games as a 'Yote, the team also owes a nod to the shootout -- five of the Coyotes' last seven wins have come from the post-OT skills competition.
While Phoenix's rise to the top has been an inspiring story, the Hawks are unlikely to be moved. The Coyotes' current winning streak is taking place while the Blackhawks, who have been among the League's elite all season long, are struggling to keep pace and waiting out a series of injuries that have weakened them on the back end. In the past two weeks, Chicago has lost defensemen Brian Campbell, Kim Johnsson and Brent Seabrook to injury at the same time that starting netminder Cristobal Huet has been hit by a bout of the flu.

As a result, the Hawks have won just twice in their last seven games, and only once in regulation. Chicago's weakened defense has given up 22 goals in that stretch, and although the return of Huet could provide a lift -- his illness has cost him the last four games -- the Frenchman was struggling before his absence, going 2-2-0 with a 3.42 goals-against average in five appearances after the Olympic break. The offense, too, has not been its potent self, though Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer have combined for 13 points in the last five games. In spite of the adversity facing the Hawks, they are still a near lock to take their first division title since 1993. In the race to be best in the West, Chicago also holds a valuable trump card. Despite losing the season series to the Coyotes, the Hawks still have two games in hand.

Who's hot:
Ilya Bryzgalov should be back in net for Phoenix after getting the night off Sunday and he rides a wave of momentum having won his last seven starts, compiling two shutouts and a 1.66 GAA in the process. … Chicago's Marian Hossa has two goals and three assists in his last four games.

Injury report:
While Campbell's broken collarbone is expected to keep him out of Chicago's lineup well into the postseason, the Hawks may get a boost from the return of Seabrook, who is probable after being out of the lineup after a hit to the head from Anaheim's James Wisniewski last week that earned Wisniewski an eight-game suspension. Chicago's Johnsson is listed as questionable with an upper-body injury. … Phoenix is mostly healthy, though Robert Lang is still out after suffering a lower-body injury earlier this month.

Stat pack:
Chicago's thinning blueline and Huet's illness have been a perfect storm for surrendering offense, but the three goals allowed per game over the Hawks' last five outings isn't nearly as alarming as how many opportunities their opponents are now getting. Chicago has averaged just 24.7 shots against per game this year, lowest in the League by a significant margin. Over the last five games, that figure has ballooned to a shocking 30.4 shots.

Puck drop:
While it is easy to deride the Coyotes' winning streak as a product of the shootout, a second win over the championship-minded Blackhawks in a span of four days would be a serious accomplishment for the upstart 'Yotes to hang their collective hat on. A sweep of the season series with Chicago might be even more impressive. In its 30-year history, the Jets/Coyotes franchise has never turned that trick on the Windy City.

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