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Hawks, Sharks square off for top spot in NHL

by Dan Rosen
All San Jose coach Todd McLellan needs is one word to describe how dangerous the Chicago Blackhawks are.

"Extremely," McLellan told Wednesday.

When the Sharks walk into their own building Thursday night, they'll be walking into the extreme danger zone.

Chicago is in town for the fourth matchup between the NHL's top two teams, a final barometer for both clubs to figure out where they really stand out West. The winner will close the night in first place in the NHL.

The Sharks lead the NHL with 78 points, but the Hawks, despite owning one more victory, are right behind them with 76.

"It's not for the Stanley Cup or anything," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said, "but it's two teams that want that first-place position."

The Sharks won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 22 in Chicago, but they did it despite being outshot 47-14. Evgeni Nabokov made 45 saves in a brilliant effort. Chicago won the first two by a combined score of 11-5, including a 7-2 thrashing the last time they visited the Shark Tank. That was Marian Hossa's debut, and he pumped in a pair of goals.

Brent Seabrook scored the overtime winner on Nov. 15 to give Chicago a 4-3 win at United Center in the first meeting this season.

"Even the game we won in Chicago, I think most guys would say that we probably didn't deserve to win it," Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who is day-to-day with an upper body injury, told NHL Live on Wednesday. "This is the one team that has given us a hard time so far, and we're looking to show ourselves and our fans and everybody that we can definitely play a little bit better against them."

McLellan agreed that fans on the East Coast, who may normally be in bed by the time this game starts, should stay up until around 1 in the morning to watch this one.

"I would," he said.

"It's a huge game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville offered.

It's a chance to see:

* Thirteen Olympians representing six countries; 
* Four players who rank in the top 10 in League scoring; 
* Sharks center Joe Thornton, the NHL's leader with 54 assists; 
* Sharks winger Patrick Marleau, the leader in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 35 goals;
* Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith, arguably the leader in the Norris Trophy race;
* Special teams that are among the best in the League.

"It seems like the importance of the game, there is an awareness of it," Quenneville said. "Knowing it's the last time we meet each other and what's at stake, it's got a lot of implications going into it."

McLellan thinks the Hawks are, "to put it in one word, extremely dangerous," for a plethora of reasons.

No. 1 is their depth. He said that's what allows them to play "the proverbial puck- possession type of game that they execute very well.

"They have tremendous talent on all four lines and on the blue line so once they get the puck they are tough to defend against," he explained. "They have a tremendous amount of motion in the offensive zone and that's because they are so confident in playing with the puck."

Quenneville flips the storyline when he talks about how difficult it is to get the puck back from the Sharks, especially when Thornton, Marleau and Dany Heatley are on the ice together.

"Try to contain them is probably the best way to do it and try to cut down the high-quality chances they get," Quenneville said. "They're going to get chances and they're going to be in our end and they're going to get shots, but try to prevent the high-quality ones and keep the puck if we do get it against them."

All this talk of possession is why McLellan sees faceoffs as being essential.

The Sharks are No. 1 in faceoffs, winning 55.8 percent. The Blackhawks are also good at 52.8 percent, which is third in the League. The disparity is not great enough for anybody to say the advantage in the circle swings to one particular side.

"Will they be the difference in the game?" McLellan asked rhetorically. "I don't know if you can say that, but they will be important."

Among numerous other things to watch Thursday night, one of the more interesting subplots could come off the Chicago bench.

Will Quenneville go the star power on star power route and put Hossa back on a line with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews when McLellan rolls out his line of Olympians -- Thornton, Marleau and Heatley?

Hossa has been skating mostly as the right wing with Sharp and Andrew Ladd, while Troy Brouwer has been the left wing with Toews and Kane. However, in the Hawks' 7-2 win over San Jose on Thanksgiving Eve, Hossa was with Kane and Toews and he scored twice.

"He could very well do it," McLellan said of putting together a power line. "I know last time they played in our building, Marian made his first appearance in a Blackhawk uniform, they played together that night for a large part of it and we know what the results are. I wouldn't be surprised to see that."

Quenneville could then use his top defensive pair of Keith and Seabrook along with the Kane-Toews-Hossa line while McLellan could put out Boyle (if he's healthy, though he is a game-time decision) and Douglas Murray with the Heatley-Thornton-Marleau trio.

Factor in goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and 11 of the 12 players on the ice could be playing in the Olympics next month. If France had qualified, it would be all 12 since Cristobal Huet would be the goalie.

So, yeah, that's kind of big.

"We've pretty much been going head-to-head with them every other night," Toews told the Daily Herald of suburban Chicago. "It's kind of been a bit of a rat race, I guess. Every time they go up by a few points we seem to catch them or it's the other way around. Every time we face them it's important to steal two points from them."

Even with the hype, McLellan is trying not to go overboard when he talks about the importance of the game.

"If you are basing your postseason predictions on it, that can be a little dangerous," he said. "It's Game 54. Should both teams be lucky enough to make the playoffs and end up in a situation where they could play against each other for whatever reasons, we're looking months down the road. There is too much that can happen between now and then as far as rosters, health, different opponents to put that much stock into this one."

A little doesn't hurt, though.

Contact Dan Rosen at

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