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Hawks, Sharks meet for first time since playoffs

by David Kalan
BLACKHAWKS (11-10-2) at SHARKS (9-6-4)


Last 10: Chicago 4-5-1; San Jose 4-3-3.

Season series: This is the first meeting of the season for San Jose and Chicago. The Blackhawks won last year's season series 3-1, but what is likely more prevalent in the minds of both teams is Chicago's 4-0 sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference Final six months ago.

Big story: Both Chicago and San Jose are further down the standings than they might be accustomed to, but as each team steadily climbs back to the top, the Sharks will be looking for some vengeance after their embarrassing o-fer against the Hawks last postseason.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks: At the midway point of Chicago's annual circus trip, the Hawks' results so far are somewhat mixed. As the team looks to move up the standings on the six-game swing, the Blackhawks have two dominating wins over Edmonton and a Vancouver team widely expected to make a deep playoff run this year. However, those two victories sandwiched a surprising 7-2 loss to Calgary, which is itself struggling in the Northwest standings. All seven of those goals fell on the shoulders of Marty Turco, who is likely to get the call Wednesday in San Jose despite winning just one of his last four starts.

Despite Turco's recent troubles, however, the Hawks' offense is starting to roll as the trip moves to California. Chicago has 14 goals over the last three games with suspects both usual and unusual chipping in. Patrick Kane has seven points in his last four games, while Patrick Sharp has five points in his last five, but the Hawks have also gotten production out of Bryan Bickell, who has a three-game point streak, and Brent Seabrook, who has given the Blackhawks three points in the last four games from an unlikely source on the blue line.

Sharks: San Jose, too, is surprisingly down in the standings, and with Anaheim, Phoenix and Los Angeles all ahead of the Sharks in the Pacific, their current three-game losing streak is not helping. Two of those three losses did come in overtime, but going nine days without one is an unusual place for San Jose. To return to the top of the West, the Sharks could use better help in net. Antero Niittymaki's strong start seems to have earned him the primary goaltending role over free agent acquisition Antti Niemi, but Niittymaki has lost his last two starts, giving up a total of six goals in the process.

Should either Niittymaki or Niemi return to form, it won't be long before the Sharks start rolling over opponents. The offense has proven itself to be both strong and deep in November. Joe Pavelski's eight points in the last six games have helped to spark a team that surprisingly ranks in the bottom half of the League in goals per game. Dan Boyle (eight points in eight games), Patrick Marleau (four points in four games) and Dany Heatley (four points in four games) have also contributed, but San Jose's secondary scoring should be turning some heads. Logan Couture, all of 21 years old, and Ryane Clowe have combined for 14 points in their last five outings.

Who's hot: After a protracted scoring drought earlier this month, Marian Hossa seems to have found his touch, tallying six points in the last four games. ... San Jose's Scott Nichol is not noted for his scoring -- he had four goals all of last season -- but he might be heating up in his second season on the Bay, with two goals in his last four games.

Injury report: Douglas Murray (lower-body injury) and Jason Demers (upper-body injury) are both questionable for Wednesday. The Blackhawks should have a full lineup.

Stat pack: San Jose's offense has been among the most dangerous in the League in recent seasons, which makes their 2.84 goals per game seem almost surprisingly average. The more games they play however, the more likely it is the Sharks' output will return to normal. Their current lack of scoring certainly isn't due to lack of effort. San Jose leads the NHL with an average of 36.1 shots per game.

Puck drop: Chicago and San Jose both seem to be waiting for a breakthrough as the season turns the quarter pole. Much longer, however, and these sleeping giants may not wake up in time in the extremely competitive Western conference. This game could provide extra incentive for the Sharks to get back in the win column, though, as most holdovers from last season's top-seeded squad are likely still smarting from their playoff ouster at the hands of the Hawks.
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