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Playoff rivals meet again as Canucks visit Blackhawks

by David Kalan
CANUCKS (39-22-2) at BLACKHAWKS (42-16-5)

Last 10 -- Vancouver 6-4-0; Chicago 6-3-1

Season series --
The Canucks hold a 2-1 edge in the season series after beating up on the Hawks, 5-1, at GM Place on Jan. 23. This will be their final regular season meeting of the season.

Big story --
As the Canucks begin the home stretch of their record road swing, they face a tough test in Chicago against a Hawks team that eliminated Vancouver from the playoffs a season ago and may very well be its opponent again come May.

Team scope:

Canucks --
Having not played at home in 37 days, Vancouver has been on the road so long GM Mike Gillis might want to consider offering a contract to Willie Nelson. The Canucks have four stops left on an NHL record 14-game road trip, which was necessitated by their home arena's involvement in the recently completed Vancouver Olympics. To this point, the Canucks have gone 6-4 on the trek, which was broken up by the League's two-week Olympic break.

If the Canucks can keep their heads above water for the rest of the swing it should pay dividends, with 10 of their final 15 games back in British Columbia. That could be a tough assignment with Vancouver finishing the trip against Chicago, Nashville, Colorado and Phoenix, all of whom are currently in the West's top eight, but the Canucks are playing well out of the break. Vancouver rallied to defeat Columbus in overtime on Tuesday night on Christian Ehrhoff's game-winner before delivering an impressive 6-3 romp in Detroit 24 hours later. With the offense playing well and Roberto Luongo showing little fatigue -- he had 28 saves in his one start since winning gold on Sunday -- the Canucks finishing the road trip strong may not be so remote a possibility.

Blackhawks -- Chicago has had a more inauspicious start to its post-Olympic stretch run with a 5-3 loss to the Islanders in New York Tuesday. While the Hawks rebounded the next night, opening their current four-game homestand with a 5-2 win over the Oilers, questions in net still abound. Cristobal Huet was pulled after 35 minutes Tuesday in New York, and while he got the win against Edmonton, Chicago's staunch defense only allowed him to see a paltry 14 shots. While coach Joel Quenneville has yet to name a starter for Friday, Huet getting back-to-back starts earlier this week would seem to indicate that he will be the primary starter from now on.

Whoever is between the pipes can look forward to having an awful lot of offensive support. Chicago's big guns have not slowed down after the two-week Olympic pause, as Jonathan Toews has six points in his last three games and Marian Hossa has five points in his last five outings. Of course, as the Hawks are currently locked up in a neck-and-neck battle with San Jose for the West's top seed, there could be major implications if the goaltending doesn't return to its form from earlier this season. Vancouver may not be the ideal team to rebuild your confidence against, however. The Canucks average the second most goals per game in the League.

Who's hot --
American Ryan Kesler made some noise with his comments during the Vancouver Games, but he received a warm ovation during the medal ceremony and rightfully so. Kesler, who scored twice against Detroit Wednesday, has 13 points in his last 11 games. Kesler's Olympic teammate, Patrick Kane, has been even better, tallying 11 points in his last six outings.

Injury report -- The Blackhawks are still missing Adam Burish, who has been out all year after knee surgery, but is expected to return before the season ends. … Steve Bernier is doubtful for the Canucks with a groin injury.

Stat pack --
When these teams met in the postseason last May, Vancouver's game plan for containing Patrick Kane was to check the dynamic winger. Kane responded by tallying a hat trick against Luongo in the decisive sixth game, but has since struggled against the Canadian Olympic hero. Kane has not scored in three games against Vancouver this year, and while he did have two assists in Sunday's gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada, he was unable to beat Luongo again despite putting four shots on goal.

Puck drop --
Chicago's race for the top seed in the West will clearly be its highest priority as the season heads towards its final weeks, but Vancouver is embroiled in its own race with Colorado for first in the Northwest Division. With the Canucks also in a battle for playoff positioning and looking for a big finish to their massive road trip, they should be poised to bring a lot of momentum into the United Center Friday.

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