Sharks, Blackhawks aiming to get back on track
BLACKHAWKS (29-18-7) at SHARKS (29-16-6)
TV: NHLN-CA, WGN, CSN-CA (HD)
Chicago 3-5-2; San Jose 4-5-1
Chicago has won two of its first three games against San Jose this season, most recently defeating the Sharks 4-3 at the United Center on Jan. 15.
As the Hawks deal with their longest road trip of the season, the team is struggling and desperate to break out of its funk. Visiting the Pacific-leading Sharks shouldn't make that particularly easy, but San Jose is dealing with a slump of its own.
There remains a sizeable cushion between the Blackhawks and the ninth spot in the West, meaning they shouldn't be too fearful of missing the playoffs unless their current skid becomes more protracted, but there is no denying that in the highly competitive Central Division, Chicago is starting to be left behind. As the Hawks bounce around on an arduous nine-game road trip, they have yet to get a win heading into the mid-point, going 0-3-1 in their first four games on the swing. Add that to two losses before leaving the Windy City, and the Blackhawks have a grand total of one point to show for themselves in the last six games.
The slump has dropped the Blackhawks in a considerable hole behind Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville in the Central after being in a dogfight with the other three teams for first in the West just two weeks ago. As the road-weary Hawks continue their trip, the schedule is likely to make things even more difficult -- after San Jose, Chicago still has to visit Nashville and the New York Rangers. Once they get home it doesn't get much easier. The Blackhawks' first two games back at the United Center are against the Blues and Red Wings.
As it stands, the Sharks aren't exactly cruising to another Pacific Division crown, but they do appear to be in decent shape. San Jose's closest competitor in the division is Los Angeles, which was two points back heading into Thursday night's action, but will also have played four more games by the time the Sharks and Blackhawks drop the puck Friday.
While Chicago's slump will be grabbing the headlines heading into this matchup, the Sharks have had their own struggles lately. San Jose has lost two straight and five of its last eight games. And on the horizon after Friday's game with the Blackhawks is San Jose's own exhausting nine-game road trip.
Patrick Sharp has 2 goals and 2 assists in the last three games for Chicago. … Joe Thornton
has been lighting it up for San Jose, tallying 8 points in his last four games.
As if things weren't already difficult enough for the Blackhawks, a flu bug seems to have found its way into the locker room. Viktor Stalberg, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Nick Leddy and Bryan Bickell are all questionable for Friday with flu-like symptoms, while Steve Montador is also questionable with an upper-body injury. Of course, Chicago isn't the only team dealing with the bug. Dan Boyle
is also questionable for San Jose with flu-like symptoms, while Martin Havlat
, who has been out since Dec. 18 following hamstring surgery, should be nearing his return to action, but is still on IR.
Chicago, despite being one of the better teams in the League this season, has struggled with its goaltending, giving up a surprising 2.96 goals per game, but even that modest mark has been made to look impressive by its play lately. In the first four games of the Blackhawks' current road trip they have given up 19 goals, an average of 4.75 per game.
Both of these teams stand on tenuous ground, as a brief slump could turn into a massive one if they don't start winning games soon. If those slumps become massive, their postseason futures could be as dicey as their current play. Not only is Friday a solid chance to turn things around, it will also be a barometer of how each team can fare against both adversity and solid competition -- and it just might be a preview of another postseason meeting. If the season ended today, Chicago would be right back here in San Jose for Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.