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Hawks visit Sharks in Western showdown

by David Kalan

BLACKHAWKS (36-13-4) at SHARKS (35-10-8)

Last 10 -- Chicago 6-3-1; San Jose 8-1-1.

Season series -- The Hawks lead the season series 2-1 after taking their first two meetings of the season -- including a 7-2 win at San Jose on Nov. 25. The Sharks won the last meeting, 3-2 at the UnitedCenter on Dec. 22 -- despite being outshot 47-14.

Big story -- In their final meeting of the season, the two top dogs of the Western Conference are squaring off for two points that could determine the top seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Team Scope:

Blackhawks -- As Chicago enters the final two games of its season-long eight-game road swing, the Hawks have managed to keep their heads above water so far. Joel Quenneville's squad is 4-2-0 on the trip and will look to carry the momentum from its 4-2 win over Edmonton on Tuesday -- a game that saw Jonathan Toews set the tone early with a goal 44 seconds in.

That Toews notched the early tally shouldn't be surprising -- the captain has seven points in his last six games -- but what might be surprising is that Patrick Kane does not seem like his usual self. Kane only has points in two of his last four games, and with a battle for Western Conference supremacy on the horizon, Chicago could use a big game from the dynamic winger. If the Hawks can knock off San Jose, not only will it clinch a winning road trip, but it should make the rest of the sojourn an awful lot easier. A loss Thursday would make the cross-country flight to Carolina for the road trip finale far less palatable.

Sharks -- If San Jose is looking for any help from someone who knows how to handle a stick, they could look to San Francisco Giants infielder Pablo Sandoval. The "Kung-Fu Panda" will be participating in the ceremonial puck drop Thursday night, but odds are the team will simply ask him to take his seat afterwards.

The Sharks are doing just fine.

San Jose has won five in a row and has picked up at least one point in its last eight. The offense has been producing at an astonishing clip, with Patrick Marleau leading the way with 11 points in his last seven games, but even unlikely sources have pitched in. Winger Jed Ortmeyer -- he of the 15 points this season -- has six of them in his last four games. With San Jose's recent run, a once-competitive race in the Pacific has become an afterthought. While the Sharks faced challenges from L.A. and Phoenix earlier this season, their lead has since stretched to 13 points. With a likely division title in their pockets, Thursday's meeting with the Hawks may be the biggest game left on the Sharks' schedule.

Who's hot -- San Jose's Joe Pavelski is in the midst of his best stretch of the season, tallying nine points in the last five games, while Duncan Keith continues to give Chicago production on the blue line, recording 13 points in his last 12 outings.

Injury report -- The Hawks are still awaiting the return of Dave Bolland, who is skating again after having back surgery in November, while Brent Sopel is probable for Thursday with what is being called body soreness. Defenseman Dan Boyle, who has five points in the last two games, is considered probable for San Jose after battling flu-like symptoms.

Stat pack -- Hawks goaltender Cristobal Huet may have gotten back on track Tuesday, stopping 22 of 24 shots for his first win in 10 days, but his readiness will be tested against the Sharks. San Jose has scored 26 goals in its last five games.

Puck drop -- With both teams holding comfortable leads in their respective divisions, Thursday has become a four-pointer that could very well determine the top seed in the West. A Chicago victory would leave the two tied atop the standings with 28 games to play, and hand the Hawks with a valuable trump card. Chicago already has more wins, and another one Thursday would clinch the season series with San Jose.

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