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Hawks try to stay perfect against Blue Jackets

by Eric Goodman

BLACKHAWKS (46-19-7) AT BLUE JACKETS (29-32-12)

Last 10 -- Chicago 5-3-2; Columbus 4-4-2

Season series -- This is the fifth of six meetings between the Central Division rivals. Chicago has taken a shootout and regulation win each at both the United Center and Nationwide Arena this season. The two clubs will wrap up its season series Sunday in the Windy City.

Big story -- A 2-0 win over the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday put the Blackhawks back into first place in the Western Conference. If Chicago can fend off the Sharks and Coyotes down the stretch, it would win its fist conference championship since the 1992-93 season when the Hawks finished atop the Clarence Campbell Conference with 106 points. The Hawks also need two more victories over Columbus to complete the season sweep.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks -- Sitting atop the Western Conference should have removed any doubt that skeptics had about the quality of this season's squad. The goaltending situation remains as the only question mark, but backup Antti Niemi has been doing all he can recently to prove that he should be the man to lead the Hawks to their next plateau. The Finnish goalie's last five starts, most of which were in place of flu-stricken starter Cristobel Huet, yielded a regulation win over the Coyotes and two victories against the Kings, while his two losses over that span were in overtime to the NHL-leading Capitals on Mar. 14 and a shootout defeat at Phoenix on Mar. 20.

"We all know the meaning of the game and the implications of the conference," Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville said after Tuesday's game. "(The Coyotes) are on an amazing roll. It never looked like it would be easy. Antti persevered to the end."

Blue Jackets -- After finally making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history during the 2008-09 season, Columbus is almost officially mathematically eliminated from postseason play this season. The Jackets have lost two in a row and are trying to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Blackhawks for the first time in their 10-year history. A 6-3 loss at New Jersey on Tuesday showed that the Jackets weren't playing to their full capabilities; Columbus was down 1-0 at the end of the first period but fell behind 5-2 after 40 minutes.

"We still could have won the game," interim coach Claude Noel said after the defeat to the Devils. "After the first period, the game was still up for grabs. We didn't come out like we needed to come out. That's the disappointing thing."

Who's hot -- Hawks' forward Marian Hossa has six points (3-3-6) in his last five games. Left wing Kristian Huselius has tallied 10 points (4-6-10) over his last five games for Columbus.

Injury report -- Defenseman Brent Seabrook returned to Chicago's lineup Tuesday after getting hit in the head by Anaheim's James Wisniewski last week. Brian Campbell (broken collarbone) is not expected back until sometime in the playoffs at the earliest, while defenseman Kim Johnsson is still questionable with an upper-body injury… The Jackets are without defensemen Jan Hejda (knee) and Rostislav Klesla (hip).

Stat pack -- Despite his backup goalie status, Niemi has recorded six shutouts this season to regular starter Huet's four.

Puck drop -- A meeting between the West's first-place team and 14th-place club this late in the season would usually mean that fans might not see both clubs going all out, but this game should be different. Chicago will continue to fight hard in order to stay on top in the Western Conference, while the Blue Jackets will certainly do all they can to avoid getting swept by their division rival. Columbus would undoubtedly love to spoil the Hawks' chances at being the West's top team this season.

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