BLACKHAWKS (16-12-2) at SHARKS (14-10-4)
TV: CSN-CH (HD), CSN-CA (HD)
Chicago 7-3-0; San Jose 5-5-0
San Jose leads the series 1-0 after taking a 5-2 win over Chicago on Nov. 24 at HP Pavilion.
After facing off in the Western Conference Finals last spring, each of these teams probably expected to have comfortable leads in their respective divisions by now. While it hasn't played out that way to this point, both Chicago and San Jose have started to look like their old selves after an inconsistent first quarter of the season. Saturday's showdown will be a big test for the Hawks and the Sharks as they look to continue climbing up the West's top eight.
Despite the early bumpy road, Chicago has ridden a recent hot streak up to second place in the Central. The Hawks have won eight of their last 11 games, including three games on a just-completed four-game homestand, which has Chicago within striking distance of Detroit for the top spot. The Wings do hold the trump card in that they have several games in hand, but as the Hawks open a brief two-game swing through San Jose and Colorado, things are certainly looking up. Not coincidentally, Chicago's recent hot streak has matched up with the emergence of goalie Corey Crawford
, who appears to have wrested the starting job from Marty Turco by winning his last seven starts.
The true test for the Hawks, however, is in how they manage with the loss of Patrick Kane
, who will be out for at least three weeks due to injury. Patrick Sharp
had gone two games without a point before scoring in the Hawks' impressive 5-3 win over Pacific-leading Dallas on Wednesday night, and he'll need to continue to producing while last year's Stanley Cup hero is gone. Given Sharp's 30 points in 29 games, he is clearly capable of filling the void, but with Kane out and Marian Hossa
still not back, the pressure is on Sharp to help carry the offense. The Hawks have gotten contributions from players like Bryan Bickell
and Dave Bolland
, who have combined for 4 goals and 3 assists in the last two games, but the secondary scoring will not pull Chicago through December by itself. The first line must be able to produce without Hossa and Kane in tow.
In recent seasons the Pacific has almost exclusively been the Sharks' domain, but so far in the current campaign the division has been almost ludicrously logjammed. As of Friday afternoon the first-place Stars and the last place Ducks were separated by a grand total of two points, with San Jose, L.A. and Phoenix all stuck in between. As the Sharks look to take advantage of such a tight race, they could have hoped for a better result than the 6-3 defeat they took in their last game Thursday night in Buffalo. The loss, which capped a five-game road trip, was a disappointment after San Jose pulled off an impressive three-goal third-period comeback in Philadelphia the night before en route to a 5-4 shootout win.
Despite that last stop, the Sharks did finish the trip with three wins in five games and may have found their next big offensive weapon in Logan Couture
, who is blisteringly hot after scoring 6 goals on the five-game trek. But those facts mask concern over the offense's big producers -- Patrick Marleau
doesn't have a point in four games -- and in net. After giving up five goals to Buffalo on Thursday, Antti Niemi
may be watching his ex-mates from Chicago from the bench in favor of Antero Niittymaki
, but while Niittymaki has won two of his last three starts, he's also given up 12 goals in that span.
Who's hot: Ryane Clowe
has continued to produce without much renown, tallying 6 points in San Jose's last three games. … Jonathan Toews
has been heating up for Chicago, picking up 4 goals and 3 assists in the last four games.
While Chicago may get Hossa (lower-body injury) back relatively soon, Kane (left ankle) will still be out for at least two more weeks. The Hawks could also be without defenseman Jassen Cullimore (lower-body injury), who is questionable for Saturday, and Fernando Pisani (upper-body injury) who is doubtful. … San Jose will be without Devin Setoguchi and Kent Huskins, both of whom have been out since the end of last month due to upper-body injuries.
Niemi's numbers this year have lagged behind his impressive performance during Chicago's Cup run this past spring, but if he does get the call Saturday, there could be good reason. Niemi had 30 saves against the Hawks in his first meeting with them since leaving the Windy City.
Both Chicago and San Jose's talent is a proven commodity, but neither team is out of the woods yet in what is shaping up, albeit fairly early, as a very tight playoff race in the Western Conference. A win Saturday will not only be a boost in the standings, but given the nature of the competition, a psychological one as well.