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Sharks at Blackhawks Preview: Go for eight in the Windy City

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A win-streak rolling against a non-playoff team? Are we worried?

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 23: Alex DeBrincat #12 of the Chicago Blackhawks tries to get off a shot at Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks pressured by Justin Braun #61 at the United Center on February 23, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeate Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What a relief it is to say that the Chicago Blackhawks are not good. After spending much of the season attempting to coast by on the shoulders of Corey Crawford and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks sunk to the bottom of the Central and were eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in nine years. It hardly came as a surprise: the ‘Hawks were a first round exit for the past two seasons and little has been done to improve their roster, which is now saddled with hefty contracts for players whose performances are rapidly declining due to age, as well as injury.

It’s hard to feel bad for those guys when they earned three Stanley Cups in that nine year span, the first coming at the expense of the Sharks in a Western Conference Final sweep in 2010.

The bright spot in their season has been rookie Alex DeBrincat, who is fourth on the team in points (46) and second only to Patrick Kane in goals (25). The Michigan native was drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

There’s also sophomore Nick Schmaltz, who has had a surprising impact on the team this season. Drafted in the first round of the 2014 Draft, Schmaltz made his NHL debut last year, playing in 61 games and putting up only six goals, but a respectable 22 assists. The center showed some promise, but this year has more than tripled his goal total, tallying 21 goals and 28 assists in 72 games.

If the Blackhawks are looking to rebuild on the fly and get back in as Cup contenders sooner rather than later, they’ll need more young talent to step up.

The Sharks are sitting pretty at second in the Pacific with 95 points, six points behind the Vegas Golden Knights. There’s a smaller margin between the Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks; only four points between the second and third place teams, and one point between the third and fourth place Los Angeles Kings. The good news is that the Sharks are on a seven-game winning streak following their 5-1 defeat of the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

The Blackhawks also had a win on Saturday, defeating the New York Islanders, 3-1. Both teams are rested and ready to win. The last time these two teams met, the Sharks took home a 7-2 win at SAP Center. The Blackhawks also have a win against the Sharks, a 3-1 victory in February at United Center.

What are the Blackhawks playing for?

Winning right now seems a bit pointless for the Blackhawks. They have no post-season, no home ice advantage to incentivize them. All winning does at this point is hurt their chances at winning the biggest consolation prize of missing out on a Cup run: the number one draft pick.

Of course, some of them have contracts to be playing for, but in these final few games, the season is what it is. The Sharks have the motivational edge going into tonight.

Keep the kids quiet

Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat are not to be underestimated. While the Sharks are used to putting bodies on the big names this Blackhawks team has carried over the years, the youth has been a force of their own. The Sharks can’t get lazy against players just because they’re young. Schmaltz and DeBrincat will make them pay for it.

In two games this season, Schmaltz has three points (two goals, one assist) against the Sharks.

Two injured teams

The Sharks have been making do without the services of Jumbo Joe Thornton since January, but have rotated players on the injured reserve since. They’re currently without defenseman Joakim Ryan and forward Joonas Donskoi. The story of this season seems to be pulling together for a group effort when big names go down and the Sharks are doing that in spades right now, with an 8-2-0 record over their last ten games.

For Chicago, it may not be as simple. Being without Corey Crawford has been a major setback for this team. Add to it the injuries to mid-season acquisition Anthony Duclair and top line center Jonathan Toews and a team that’s already struggling with their identity can easily be made to feel completely lost.

Bold prediction: The Sharks come in red hot and the Blackhawks have to change their goaltender — twice. Crazier things have happened.

Check back later for line combinations and the game day thread. In the meantime, drop your own bold prediction below.