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Familiar faces meet as Hawks visit Florida

by David Kalan

BLACKHAWKS (7-2-2) at PANTHERS (6-4-1)


Last 10: Chicago 7-1-2; Florida 5-4-1

Season series: This is the first meeting of the season for Florida and Chicago. The teams split a pair of games last March, with both teams winning at home.

Big Story: With the familiar faces Florida general manager Dale Tallon added this offseason, many started to dub the Panthers as "Blackhawks South." When the teams get together for the first time this season, it will be a reunion of 2010 Stanley Cup champs, but they won't all have the same rooting interests with two valuable points on the line.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks : In 2010-11, the Hawks showed how Stanley Cup hangover can weigh down a team, much like the current struggles in Boston. This season, however, Chicago is showing just how easy a talented team can make it look when it has a long summer to rest. The Blackhawks haven't played since Monday night, when they completed a sweep of their two-game homestand with an overtime win over the Nashville Predators. The Hawks are on top of the Central Division four weeks into the standings, and are one of three teams in the Western Conference with 16 points.

More important for the Hawks, however, is that the overtime win against Nashville may have awoken their top offensive players. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa had all seemed to be somewhat dormant in the week leading up to the game against the Predators, but Kane and Hossa both broke out with three-point nights, while Sharp had two assists. With Chicago set to spend two weeks on the road later this month, there's no time like the present to get the big guns firing.

Panthers: Several people in the BankAtlantic Center will have something in common Thursday night -- their 2010 Stanley Cup Championship rings. Not all those people will have the Indian Head on their chests, however. When Tallon, the architect of the 2010 champs, came to Florida, he set out to build the Panthers in a similar mold, and this offseason that mold became much more familiar when Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Jack Skille were brought to the organization. All four played for the Hawks when they won their first Cup in 49 years and Tallon is expecting them to bring that same winning experience to Sunrise.

Lost in their similar rebuilding effort to the Chicago of five years ago, however, is the fact that the Panthers, owners of the longest playoff drought in NHL history, are playing good hockey -- they are 3-1-1 in their last five games and sixth in the East at 6-4-1 overalls. For the time being, the Panthers are making the early stages of Blackhawks South -- and Tallon's rebuilding effort -- look good.

Who's Hot: They don't come much hotter than Chicago's Viktor Stalberg right now. Seventeen months after Versteeg was shipped to Toronto with Stalberg coming back to the Hawks, the Swede had the game-winner in Chicago's wins on Saturday and Monday, scoring two goals in the third against Columbus last Friday and tallying the OT winner Monday night against Nashville. ... Tomas Fleischmann is quietly having a strong start for the Panthers, tallying seven points in his last five games.

Injury Report: The Hawks will be missing a significant part of their blue line Thursday as 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith will be out with an injury to his left hand. … Recently acquired Mikael Samuelsson is out indefinitely for Florida with a groin injury, and there is a chance Kopecky could miss the reunion. He's listed as questionable with a knee injury.

Stat Pack: Chicago is nearly unbeatable at home this season, so far compiling a 5-0-2 record at the United Center. Outside the Windy City the story changes, however. The Hawks are just 2-2-0 on the road this season, and 10 of their next 13 games will be played away from 1901 West Madison Street.

Puck Drop: With Tallon behind the rebuilding effort and a stockpile of high draft picks slowly growing, these Panthers don't look too far off from the situation in Chicago before the Hawks renaissance took hold. A win against Chicago wouldn't necessarily be a sign that the Panthers have arrived for good, but it would turn some heads as people notice them climbing up the division standings. And it could be a sign that the long-struggling Panthers are ready to tangle with the big boys.

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