The Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in hockey. They're the defending Stanley Cup champions, lead the league by a substantial margin in the most predictive measure of team success and currently sit atop the Western Conference's Central Division. The final game of the Sharks' five-game road trip is also the team's toughest test of the season so far. While neither club is slated to have its full complement of players in the lineup, with Brent Burns still injured and Marian Hossa a possible scratch after sitting out last night's loss in Nashville due to an upper-body injury, this afternoon's contest is still a chance to see how the Sharks stack up against a team they'll almost certainly have to go through if they hope to finally win the franchise's first Cup this spring.
To have a chance at closing out their trip with a 4-0-1 record the Sharks have to get back to what made them successful earlier in the season. Since dominating the Coyotes (but falling in a shootout) two weeks ago, San Jose has been outshot 87-77 in score-close situations at even-strength. That's despite their non-Canucks opponents over that span being uniformly terrible. That kind of showing probably won't cut it against the NHL's top possession team in Chicago. Like the Sharks, the Blackhawks employ three lines of scoring, the third of which was recently bolstered by Stan Bowman's reacquisition of winger Kris Versteeg.
Since Joel Quenneville doesn't tend to utilize hard matchups, Todd McLellan will have a chance to counter the dangerous Jonathan Toews line with Logan Couture, leaving the Joe Thornton combination to perhaps have an advantage against a second line for the Hawks that can be defensively porous. If Joe Pavelski and whoever his wingers end up being in this one can have a better outing than they've had of late, the Sharks should be able to match Chicago shot-for-shot. If they can take advantage of the Blackhawks' vulnerable penalty kill too, they could very well pick up two points and reclaim the Pacific Division lead. But it's going to take a more complete effort than we've seen the Sharks put up in a while.
|13-2-5, 31 points
||13-3-4, 30 points|
|2nd in Pacific
||1st in Central
Projected Sharks Lineup
Patrick Marleau - Logan Couture - James Sheppard
Tomas Hertl - Joe Thornton - Tommy Wingels
John McCarthy - Joe Pavelski - Tyler Kennedy
Matt Nieto - Andrew Desjardins - Mike Brown
Marc-Edouard Vlasic - Dan Boyle
Brad Stuart - Justin Braun
Scott Hannan - Jason Demers
Projected Blackhawks Lineup
Patrick Sharp - Jonathan Toews - Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad - Brandon Pirri - Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell - Andrew Shaw - Kris Versteeg
Brandon Bollig - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith
Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy - Michal Rozsival