If Thursday’s beating in LA was significant for a reason other than the loss of two January points in a tight Western Conference, it’s that it ratchets up the importance of tonight’s game in San Jose. And, for the Blackhawks, that’s a bad thing. The Sharks have the NHL’s best record at 36-6-5, four scorers with at least 40 points, including two players, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, averaging more than a point per game with over 50 points, and seven players with at least 12 goals. Their back-up goalie is 9-1-1 with a save percentage just under .930; GM Doug Wilson added former Tampa Bay defenseman and current Norris Trophy candidate Dan Boyle when the Sharks lost the offseason Brian Campbell Derby; and he’s even added old-timer Claude Lemieux for the stretch run. Yes, these aren’t your Grandfather’s Sharks. They have size, plenty of skill, and most importantly, they beat the Blackhawks with regularity, having beaten their Western Conference foes the last thirteen times the teams have met. Don’t believe us? Check out the ghosts of San Jose past with the Fifth Feather recaps of this season’s two Chicago-San Jose match-ups: first, the 6-5 loss at the United Center in mid-November and, next, the 3-2 overtime loss in San Jose on Thanksgiving Eve. In each game, the ‘Hawks kept it close until the end – in each game, they lead in the third – but were badly outclassed when it counted.
Meanwhile, the ‘Hawks are struggling terribly, failing to score more than two goals in five of their last six games. Offensive stars Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathon Toews are all struggling, and Kris Versteeg is injured. Even Cristobal Huet had a sub-par game in Los Angeles. And, after Coach Joel Quennville changed lines for Wednesday and Thursday games in Anaheim and LA, the ‘Hawk forwards have, for the most part, failed to respond. On Thursday, the ‘Hawks’ fourth line – Burish, Eager and Fraser for most of the evening – was the best line, forcing their will on the King defenders deep in the LA zone. The unit even added a tally on Wednesday in Anaheim. But, the other three groups – primarily, the top two lines – continued to struggle, playing rather uninspired offensive hockey. Only in the third did the ‘Hawks truely change things up, doing exactly what struggling offensive teams must do: simplify. They turned up the desperation and the want-to, got pucks to the net, and crashed the crease – albeit, without Patrick Kane for most of the third. To have a chance this evening, they’ll have to do the same. The Sharks will likely score at least three; to grab a point or two in San Jose, the ‘Hawks must do what they’ve been able to do only once since January 14th against Buffalo: score more than twice.
Finally, if all else fails, at least the ‘Hawks can say farewill to January after tonight’s tilt. The ‘Hawks are 6-6-1 during the month after going 10-1-1 in December. Perhaps February will be kinder.