CHICAGO- The San Jose Sharks (8-5-2) will swim into the Madhouse this evening for a date with the Chicago Blackhawks (7-6-1) that will pit two Western Conference playoff contenders against each other for the first time this year. This will be the first Western Conference match-up for the Hawks since Winnipeg came into town last Sunday and stole two points, in literally one minute from the Hawks, thanks to the stick of former Hawk Michael Frolik. They not only dropped two points a week ago, but how could one forget that they were uncharacteristically shutout in the Madhouse, worse in their second straight affair. On the bright side, San Jose has had some trouble winning at the United Center in recent seasons, but regular season juggernaut led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and back stopped by former Blackhawk goaltender Antti Niemi should not be taken lightly. Last night they came from behind on the road in Dallas, posting 4 goals in the third period to stun the Stars and steal the points. As we await the puck drop for one of those great 6 o'clock starts, let take a look at what concerns and hopes we should have for this potential Western Conference Final Feather Faithful - so let's get to it.
First and foremost, let's address the issues that are most pressing - the issues that'll worry the masses around town. Doesn't mean we should, it's not February and were behind 5 points in the division, it's November - but that doesn't stop any of us from worrying about possible impending doom. Especially in Chicago.
Q has blended again, but at least for now, the lines are starting to take shape. First, we need to remember, we needn't worry ourselves any longer with which numbers each line is, just who is playing with who and against whom. Interestingly enough, Q has moved Kris Versteeg to the top line to replace Ben Smith. I have no qualms with this as Kris Versteeg's play becomes more consistently like that of a top six forward. Only said because he'll be facing the Sharks top two lines throughout the evening. However, more attention should be paid to whether he's too cute or too boring. The man has some intense puck handling skills, but sometimes it's too much and sometimes the winger becomes too careless with the biscuit, coughing it up in the neutral zone. The tempo and pace should help that line get the Hawks out the gate early, but watch for Smith to be reunited with Toews and Kane should Versteeg produce any costly turnovers. Bottom line, we'll soon find out if Steeger is capable of his occasional brilliance while playing his designated role and still make an impact - because his role tonight, on a line with Toews and Kane will have very little room for error and will certainly be very specific.
The blender continues with Bryan Bickell moving to play LW on a line centered by Andrew Shaw and flanked on the right by Brandon Saad. This could be a success or failure, we'll have to wait and see who of these three will be most successful gaining the zone and traveling through the neutral zone. With the speed and familiarity of Saad and Shaw, they should be just fine - it will be up to Bickell to bring his physical game to open up ice for his line mates. If he isn't successful, this line could end up spending much of the first period in the Hawks zone.
Further, in an even more impressive move, Q has decided to throw some serious balance and scoring capability into his supposed third line, moving Marian Hossa to play right wing on a line centered by Marcus Kruger and flanked on the left by gritty Ben Smith. This line is most exciting as three of the strongest and most consistently relied upon Blackhawks will be paired together for the first time this year. This just may end up forcing the Sharks into a less than favorable defensive matchup. Remember Hossa, Kruger, and Smith are three of our best penalty killers, All three can produce offense, all three are willing to battle on the boards and all three are reliable to do their jobs. The Sharks will be forced to take notice and keep their eye on these three every time they come over the boards, if they don't, much to the delight of the Feather Faithful, this line just might explode for 3 or 4 points tonight.
Briefly, don't forget to keep an eye on the play of Peter Regin and Brad Richards together on their line with Jeremy Morin. Though it looked more like Regin and Richards were playing together and Morin was just, well, there, on Friday - Richards and Regin might be able to use their hockey IQ's to form a duo that could start a wave of production from both Regin and Richards. Richards has slowly been finding his footing here in Chicago and in the Western Conference. If Richards can find a partner that has speed and is able and willing to battle on the boards and go to the net, it could open up a possible opportunity for a Regin-Richards-Sharp line to be rolled out later in the year. For those wondering, this idea comes from watching the growing success Richards and Sharp were beginning to show before his injury. Remember it's not about what number line it is, it's about who's playing with who and how well they produce as a line. If the Hawks can continue to roll out four dangerous and balanced lines, they're better off than they've been in a couple years - the depth on this team is starting to be embraced, give it a second to truly reveal it's splendor. Patience, it's coming soon Faithful.
THE FINAL WORD
The train needs to keep moving - the power play, penalty kill and shots on goal need to stay productive. The Blackhawks are currently leading the league on the Penalty Kill, cruising at over 90%, while their Power Play has converted at least once in the last four games and their shot production remains near the top of the league on average. Though the Hawks have been solid on the road, where they haven't been in recent years, it'd be nice to see them rout the Sharks in similar fashion to the routing of the Habs. Unfortunately, it will come at the cost of once loved Annti Niemi, but a shutout and rout of the Sharks should put the Hawks on an uptick that they can carry into the looming circus trip that starts in a couple weeks.
With the newly formulated lines, the day of rest and the Sharks traveling up from Dallas for the second in a back to back set, the Hawks should be poised and able to take advantage. A solid effort and decent result will help remind the Western Conference that nothing has changed here in Chicago, the path to Lord Stanley's Cup still runs down Madison Ave.
SHARKS VS HAWKS 6PM WGN