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Flames-Blackhawks Preview

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Flames-Blackhawks Preview

GAME: Calgary Flames (29-15-5) at Chicago Blackhawks (16-27-6).

TIME: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. EST.

The Chicago Blackhawks thought they had solved their goaltending issues before the season began.

Set to play their 50th game of the season against the Northwest Division-leading Calgary Flames on Thursday, Chicago's problems in net are as bad as ever.

The Blackhawks thought they had found an answer to their goaltending woes when they signed Nikolai Khabibulin, who led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup in 2004, before the season.

Chicago allowed the second-most goals in the NHL in 2003-04, and figured Khabibulin would help dramatically improve that number. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, the signing has yet to pay any real dividends.

Khabibulin is 12-18-3 with a 3.32 goals-against average in his first season in Chicago, and the Blackhawks have given up 170 goals, the seventh-highest total in the league and third-highest in the Western Conference.

Khabibulin's disappointing season took another turn Friday, when he suffered a sprained knee in a 4-1 road loss to Minnesota that will keep him out up to six weeks.

Khabibulin had just returned to the Blackhawks lineup Thursday after missing 10 games with a groin pull, and stopped 37 shots in a 4-2 win over Colorado.

Chicago turned to rookie Adam Munro in Sunday's finale of the home-and-home series with the Wild, and he allowed three goals on 15 shots before being replaced by Corey Crawford. Recalled from Norfolk of the AHL on Sunday, Crawford stopped all seven shots he faced in his NHL debut, but the Blackhawks lost 3-2.

Munro and Crawford have a combined 12 games of NHL experience.

"I've said it before: You're not going to win in this league with average or below-average goaltending," Chicago coach Trent Yawney said. "Tonight it was below average. But Crawford was awesome for a kid that was thrown in there."

The Blackhawks are also struggling offensively, putting even more pressure on the goaltending and defense to keep them in games. Chicago has lost four of five, scoring only six goals in the defeats.

Mark Bell scored his team-leading 17th goal Sunday, but it was his first in seven games. Tyler Arnason has 11 goals and 23 assists in 48 games this season, but only one goal and three assists in his last 11.

"I've challenged him to be our best player every night," said Yawney, who has not been happy recently with Arnason's play. "Truth be known, that was before the season even started. I also challenged him again most recently."

The Blackhawks have won three of their last 18 games, and two of their last 13 at home.

Chicago snapped Calgary's season-high eight-game winning streak earlier this season with a 5-2 victory Nov. 18. The Blackhawks host the Flames again Sunday.

Chicago won't get a chance to end another Calgary win streak, as the Flames' run of four consecutive victories was stopped in a 7-4 loss to Colorado on Tuesday night.

Chuck Kobasew had his first career hat trick for the Flames, but the Avalanche's five-goal second period was too much to overcome.

"They scored some power-play goals and some goals off of turnovers and that's not the way we play," said Kobasew, who had gone 13 games without a goal. "We got to rebound and find a way to go to Chicago with that edge and get that two points."

Miikka Kiprusoff has won four straight games and has a 1.25 GAA over that span. He is 3-1-1 in his career against the Blackhawks with a 2.32 GAA.

Flames leading scorer Jarome Iginla has six goals in his last six games. The Flames captain has three goals and an assist in his last three contests against Chicago.

STANDINGS: Flames - 63 points, 1st place, Northwest Division. Blackhawks - 38 points, 3rd place (tied), 30 PB, Central Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Flames - Iginla, 23 goals and 39 points; Dion Phaneuf, 20 assists; Darren McCarty, 76 PIM. Blackhawks - Bell, 17 goals; Arnason, 23 assists and 34 points; Matthew Barnaby, 123 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Flames - Power play: 17.5 percent (51 for 291), 18th in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.9 percent (245 for 299), 16th. Blackhawks - Power play: 12.9 percent (34 for 263), 30th. Penalty killing: 84.9 percent (259 for 305), 5th.

GOALTENDERS: Flames - Kiprusoff (26-12-5, 6 SO, 2.25 GAA); Philippe Sauve (3-3-0, 3.28). Blackhawks - Munro (2-1-2, 2.31); Crawford (0-0-0, 0.00).

SEASON SERIES: 1-1.

LAST MEETING: Jan. 2; Flames, 3-2. At Calgary, Alberta, Matthew Lombardi scored the winning goal and Kiprusoff made 35 saves.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Flames - 11-11-3 on the road; Blackhawks - 9-12-3 at home.


Associated Press
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