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Penguins and Blackhawks take it outside

by Shawn P. Roarke

PENGUINS (40-15-4) at BLACKHAWKS (35-12-14)


Last 10: Pittsburgh 6-2-2; Chicago 3-4-3

Season series: The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks have yet to meet this season. This is the first of two games between the teams in March. They face off again March 30 in Pittsburgh.

Big story: This is the fourth and final installment of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series and will be played at Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears. While the game promises to be a prime-time spectacle on national TV, it is an important one for each team. Pittsburgh is looking for answers after a 6-5 shootout to the Montreal Canadiens at home Thursday night, a loss defined by less-than-stellar defensive play, especially on the penalty kill. Chicago, meanwhile, needs points to keep pace in the West. Chicago has earned nine points in its past 10 games and is coming off a 2-1 road loss to the New York Rangers on Thursday.

Team Scope:

Penguins: Pittsburgh has a 15-point lead on the New York Rangers atop the Metropolitan Division and a five-point edge on the Boston Bruins atop the Eastern Conference standings. But they still have plenty of motivation. Chicago, despite its recent struggles, is one of the top four teams in the Western Conference. More important, the Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champion, having won the Cup for the second time in the past four years. The Penguins see this as a measuring-stick game.

"You might have three opponents like this for our team," coach Dan Bylsma said. "You're playing a Western Conference team and we don't play them very often. They are Stanley Cup champs and, again, one of the best teams, best records in the League. I think when the schedule comes out and before you know this is going to be an outdoor game, you know you're facing the Blackhawks first and foremost. You circle that as a big date, a big game on your calendar."

Blackhawks: The time to get healthy is now for the Blackhawks. The Western Conference is too good for their run of mediocrity to continue without sustaining some long-lasting damage. Plus, they want to have pleasant memories of this outdoor experience after losing their first outdoor game, to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field.

"I think we look back on the game in 2009 and I think all of us say that we wish we would've won that game," forward Patrick Kane said. "It would've made things a little bit better. Knowing what happened in that experience obviously teaches us a lesson and we know that we want to win bad this time around.

"There's still two points on the table and it's still a regular-season game, so it means a lot for the standings and obvious with the position we're in, we want to win as many games as we can."

Chicago would like nothing more than to beat one of the League's elite teams -- and its biggest superstar, Sidney Crosby -- in front of a national television audience. For the Blackhawks, who are playing their first game in Chicago since Jan. 26, it is an opportunity to showcase their credentials as the League's best team.

"They've had a great year and they have some firepower over there," Kane said of the Penguins. "We feel the same way about our team. I think that's a great matchup to have for this kind of game. It is two teams that a lot of fans want to watch on TV and when you mix in the Stadium Series type of game like this, it makes it even more entertaining."

Who's hot: For Pittsburgh, forward James Neal has points in six straight games (four goals and four assists). His goal against Montreal was the 300th point of his career. Crosby, who had a goal and an assist Thursday, has four points in his past three games. … Chicago goalie Corey Crawford has allowed eight goals in his past five outings, but is 2-2-1 in that span because of Chicago's dormant offense.

Injury report: The Penguins are missing top-four defensemen Paul Martin and Kris Letang. Martin suffered a hand injury during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and is out 4-6 weeks. Bylsma said Friday that Martin underwent surgery Thursday to hasten the healing process. Letang had a stroke earlier last month and there is no timetable for his return. He did take part in the family skate after practice at Soldier Field on Friday. Pittsburgh is also without right wings Beau Bennett (wrist) and Pascal Dupuis (season-ending knee surgery), as well as backup goalie Tomas Vokoun, who has begun skating again after being sidelined with a blood clot during training camp. … The Blackhawks are healthy.

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