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Richards debuts as Jackets coach vs. Blackhawks

by David Kalan
BLUE JACKETS (11-25-5) at BLACKHAWKS (24-13-5)


Last 10:
Columbus 2-7-1; Chicago 4-5-1

Season series:
The Blackhawks have won all three games they've played this year against the Blue Jackets, including a 4-1 thumping in their most recent meeting on Dec. 26 at the United Center.

Big Story:
Chicago is currently in a three-way battle with Detroit and St. Louis for the top spot in the Central Division -- as well as with Vancouver for the top seed in the Western Conference -- but the big news surrounds the Blue Jackets, who will be playing their first game under interim coach Todd Richards.

Team Scope:

Blue Jackets:
Stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings, Columbus GM Scott Howson may already be planning ahead to next season, but what has already been an arduous, disappointing campaign became even more jumbled Monday morning when the team announced that coach Scott Arniel was being relieved of his duties. The shakeup comes on the heels of a 7-4 loss at Anaheim on Sunday night that not only deepened the Jackets' hole at the bottom of the standings, but also saw forward Jeff Carter suffer another injury, this time a separated shoulder that will keep him out at least through Tuesday's game and possibly much longer.

As the Jackets start the second half, Richards has been entrusted with righting the ship. Richards was a head coach just last season in Minnesota, so he knows what is required to lead an NHL team, but the reclamation project he's about to undertake may be too big for any coach to fix this season.

Not too long ago the Blackhawks appeared set to run away with the Central Division crown and maybe take a run at the top overall seed in the West. A recent slump in which Chicago lost four of five games -- all in regulation -- put a hurdle in front of that effort however, and after a frustrating overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday, in which the Hawks had an early two-goal lead, Chicago is stunningly in a three-way tie with the Red Wings and Blues atop the division.

While the Hawks' now-evaporated division lead is frustrating, the bigger concern might be how the team will replace the offense of Patrick Sharp, who suffered an upper-body injury Sunday that will keep him out three-to-four weeks. With 20 goals and 20 assists so far this season, Sharp was among the top scorers on the team and one of the most productive wingers in the League. Keeping pace with Detroit and a resurgent St. Louis will be no easy task without him.

Who's Hot:
The Hawks may be slumping, but Marian Hossa still has 3 points in the last three games. … Columbus is struggling, but winger Rick Nash is still scoring, tallying 4 goals and 1 assist in his last five games.

Injury Report:
While Marcus Kruger is believed to be close to returning from a concussion that has kept him out since late December, Chicago will have to fill a significant void with Sharp likely out until February. … Carter's injury is more gasoline on the fire for Columbus' difficult season. The team also lost Mark Letestu for six weeks recently due to surgery on his right hand, and James Wisniewski, the Jackets' other big offseason acquisition, is expected to miss five more weeks with a broken ankle.
Stat Pack: The Blackhawks have a lot of offensive firepower even without Sharp. Chicago has scored 15 goals in its three games against Columbus this season.

Puck Drop:
The problems in Columbus this season go far beyond Arniel, as the team has endured several damaging injuries, but as with any coaching change there is a change it could breathe some life into the troops. That could be tough against the Blackhawks, however. Aside from the talented, experienced roster, the sudden closeness of the Central race has amplified the importance of every point for Chicago. Even though the Hawks lost to Detroit on Sunday, their early two-goal lead suggests they know it's time to play as if every game matters -- even with half a season to go.

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