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Ducks can close gap on Blackhawks for NHL lead

by David Kalan

BLACKHAWKS (24-2-3) at DUCKS (21-3-4)


Last 10: Chicago 8-2-0; Anaheim 7-0-3

Season series: The Ducks are the only team to hold a season-series edge over the Blackhawks in 2013. The Ducks won the only prior meeting of the season, 3-2, in a shootout on Feb. 12 at United Center.

Big story: There's no arguing the Blackhawks were the story of the League -- and possibly all of North American pro sports -- over the first half of the season, but don't be surprised if that left Anaheim feeling more than a bit miffed. The Ducks, who missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs and endured a mid-season coaching change a year ago, are having a remarkable 2013 in their own right, and a win Wednesday night could turn the top seed in the West, once considered a fait accompli for Chicago, into a dogfight as the regular season approaches its final month.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: For a brief moment, it appeared the once-indomitable Blackhawks might have had a bonafide slump on their hands just over a week ago. After a 6-2 loss in Colorado ended Chicago's historic season-opening point streak and the Blackhawks responded two nights later by giving up four goals in the first period at home to the Oilers, it could have been easy to assume a team so used to winning could have difficulty figuring out how to stop losing. But as the Blackhawks embarked on a four-game road trip, which ends Wednesday in Anaheim, that notion has been emphatically put to bed.

Chicago ended its brief slide with a 2-1 shootout win at Columbus in the road-trip opener, but in their last two games the Blackhawks defeated Dallas and Colorado by a combined score of 13-3. Unsurprisingly, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews led the way offensively, with each putting up back-to-back three-point efforts, but perhaps more important than their impressive statistics is that those wins have reaffirmed the Blackhawks' status as the team to beat in 2013.

Ducks: It may not be 24 games, but Anaheim has still managed to pick up at least one point in the standings in its last 11 games, and the Ducks have just one regulation loss in their last 18 games overall. That run has not only given the Ducks a double-digit lead in the Pacific Division, but it has kept them within range of the Blackhawks for the top spot in the conference -- Anaheim trails Chicago by five points and has a game in hand.

The Ducks' showdown with the Blackhawks presents an enormous opportunity to close the gap atop the standings, but Anaheim, which signed franchise cornerstone Corey Perry to an eight-year extension Monday, is getting no favors from the schedule. After Chicago, Anaheim will face the Red Wings twice in a row and then open a home-and-home with the Sharks, whom the Ducks beat 5-3 in their last game Monday night, before visiting Chicago for a rematch with the Blackhawks. The only break for the Ducks might be that the first three of those games will be at home.

Who's hot: Kane was already having an impressive season for Chicago, but in the last four games he seems to have reached a new level, putting up four goals and six assists. … Jonas Hiller may have reclaimed the starting job in net for the Ducks. Hiller is 7-0-2 in his last nine games, and has allowed more than two goals just twice in that span.

Injury report: In addition to being without Perry, who is currently serving a suspension, the Ducks will be without Brad Staubitz (facial laceration) and Nick Bonino (flu-like symptoms), who were both placed on IR earlier this month. … Marian Hossa left Chicago's win against Colorado after being checked by the Avs' Ryan O'Byrne, and is considered doubtful for Wednesday with an upper-body injury. The Blackhawks are still without Patrick Sharp for 1-2 more weeks due to a sprained left shoulder.

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