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What To Watch For: Pens vs. Blackhawks

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (18-11-4) vs. BLACKHAWKS (21-8-4)

WHEN: Dec. 20, 2011 - 7:30 pm  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center

WATCH: Versus  |  LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM

The Chicago Blackhawks enter Tuesday’s game as the NHL’s top-ranked team. Their 4-2 win over Calgary on Sunday gave them 46 points, vaulting them over the Minnesota Wild for first place among the NHL’s 30 teams.

The 2010 Stanley Cup champions are on quite the roll, with Sunday’s win being their fifth in a row – and the 600th of head coach Joel Quenneville’s career. ‘Coach Q’ is just the 10th head coach in NHL history to reach 600 wins and was the second fastest to do so – reaching the milestone in 1,114 games. Quenneville’s team is 7-0-1 in the month of December, 9-1-1 in their last 11 games and come to CONSOL Energy Center having won five straight road contests.

The Blackhawks' top players have been leading the way as they've returned to the top of the league. Perhaps their hottest player as of late has been forward Patrick Sharp, who extended his point streak to a career-best nine games on Sunday – earning 13 points (7G-6A) over that span. Factor in the hat trick he earned two games before his stretch began and he’s got 10 goals in his last 11 games.

Linemate Marian Hossa has also been playing well as of late, as he’s got four goals in his last five games and is tied for fourth in the NHL scoring race with 36 points. Captain Jonathan Toews, who’s centering the first line with recent callup Jeremy Morin on his left and Patrick Kane on his right, is hot on his heels with 35 points and is tied for fourth in the league with 18 tallies.

But while their best players are being just that, their fourth line of Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers and Viktor Stalberg are stepping up and doing their part – as are the Blackhawks defensemen. The tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook has proven themselves to be one of the league’s elite, and the pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy continues to improve – and Quenneville has been rewarding them with more ice time against their opponent’s top lines.

In a bit of an unexpected twist, goaltender Ray Emery has been between the pipes for all five wins of Chicago’s streak. The backup netminder has been carrying the team through starter Corey Crawford’s struggles, starting the last seven games and earning an impressive 9-1-2 on the season.

Not only has Marian Hossa been dominating games as of late, but the player who came to the Penguins at the trade deadline in 2008 and went to the Stanley Cup Final with Pittsburgh tends to play well against the black and gold. The 32-year-old got 11 goals, 32 assists and 43 points in a team-high 38 career games vs. Pittsburgh.

PENGUINS: James Neal enters Tuesday’s game riding a five-game point streak, where he’s compiled four goals and seven points over that stretch. He certainly enjoys playing in front of the home crowd, as the 24-year-old – who’s tied with Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews for fourth in the league with 18 goals – has scored 12 of them at CONSOL Energy Center. The former Dallas Star has nine points (4G-5A) in 11 career games against the Blackhawks and the Penguins are 10-3-2 when he scores a goal.

Pittsburgh has gone 15 years without a home regulation loss to the Blackhawks. Chicago’s last regulation win in Pittsburgh came on Feb. 22, 1997 (5-2) at Mellon Arena. The Penguins are 5-0-3 against the Blackhawks in their last eight home games. Each of the last four games between the Penguins and Blackhawks have gone into overtime, with each team winning twice.

Talk about home cooking. The Penguins have scored five or more goals in four of their last seven home games. In those seven games they have scored 29 goals for an average of 4.14 per contest.

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said following practice on Monday that forwards Jordan Staal and Craig Adams – who did not skate with the team – will be on the ice Tuesday morning and are listed as day to day, while defenseman Zbynek Michalek – who did partake in practice – is also considered day to day.

Staal has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, while Adams sustained a lower-body injury in the second period of Saturday’s 8-3 win over Buffalo and did not return. Michalek has missed the last nine games with a concussion.

Defenseman Ben Lovejoy had his first full practice with the team on Monday since breaking his wrist. He’s missed the last 18 games while recovering from his injury. While there were no specifics given on when he’ll return to game action, Bylsma did say “we’re hopeful that Ben’s going to get some action in before the break.”

Despite suffering an upper-body injury in the first period of Sunday's game after sustaining a hit from Rene Bourque, Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook did travel with the team to Pittsburgh on Monday. The top-two blueliner’s status for the game, however, is still uncertain. Former Penguin Daniel Carcillo, who has missed the last two games with an upper-body injury, did not make the trip.

C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Ben Lovejoy, broken wrist
D Paul Martin, lower body
D Zbynek Michalek, concussion
F Richard Park, fractured foot
F Jordan Staal, lower body

F Dan Carcillo, upper body
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