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Hawks look to rebound against Blue Jackets

by David Kalan

BLUE JACKETS (18-21-9) at BLACKHAWKS (31-11-4)

Last 10 -- Columbus 4-4-2, Chicago 7-2-1

Season series -- Chicago has won the only matchup between the division rivals this season, beating the Jackets 4-3 in an 11-round shootout on Dec. 1 at the UnitedCenter.

Big story -- Chicago will look to rebound from losing two straight games for only the fourth time all season, as it opens a back-to-back with the Blue Jackets.

Team scope:

Blue Jackets -- After a rough December, the Blue Jackets have turned the page  after the turn of the year. The Jackets went 2-9-5 last month, but since the start of 2010, Columbus has won four of six. That includes 4-1 defeat in St. Louis on Tuesday, but prior to that the Jackets had won three straight. Raffi Torres has provided an offensive boost of late with 2 goals and 2 assists in the last four games, while Jan Hejda has pitched in from the blue line with a recent three-game point streak.

The bigger question lies in net, where coach Ken Hitchcock will once again have to pick between Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason. Garon appeared to have taken the starting job and backstopped the Jackets to wins in three straight starts, but was yanked in favor of Mason after giving up three goals on nine shots Tuesday. Mason stopped all 13 shots he faced for the rest of the night, which may have earned last season's Calder Trophy winner the start Thursday. It would be Mason's first start since Jan. 5, when he gave up six goals at Vancouver.

Blackhawks -- Having not played since Sunday, Chicago is coming off its first break of more than a day since returning from the Christmas break. The time off couldn't come at a better time for Marian Hossa, who is expected to play Thursday after being a late scratch on Sunday. Hossa has five goals in his last four games, and the Hawks could use his offense after dropping consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 28.

The Blackhawks would happily forget the first of those losses, a 6-5 shootout defeat in Minnesota in which they let a four-goal lead disappear in the final 14 minutes of the third period. A day later Chicago fell 3-1 at home to Anaheim despite outshooting the Ducks 43-12. That game ended Patrick Kane's 11-game point streak, in which he had 9 goals and 9 assists for 18 points.

Despite being in net for Chicago's rough outing in Minnesota, Cristobal Huet should get the start. He hasn't lost in regulation since Dec. 22.

Who's hot -- Before going scoreless in Columbus' loss to St. Louis Tuesday, Antoine Vermette had tallied six points over the previous five games. For Chicago, winger Kris Versteeg has nine points during an eight-game point streak.

Injury report -- Kris Russell (lower-body injury) and Fredrik Modin (bruised foot) are questionable for Columbus, while Cam Barker (upper-body injury) and Hossa are both questionable for the Hawks.

Stat pack -- It would seem unlikely that the Hawks would lose a third straight game. After all, it hasn't happened yet this season. But if any team could make history it might be Columbus. Chicago hasn't lost three straight since a five-game skid last March, but that streak included two defeats at the hands of the Jackets.

Puck drop -- Columbus has looked better of late, although the disastrous December may have torpedoed the Jackets' postseason chances. Staying on the winning side could be tough against the Hawks, who, despite losing their last two, are among the NHL's elite. If the Jackets do pull out the victory it may take more than 60 minutes. Chicago has lost consecutive games in regulation only once this season.

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