Man The Fight Chair: Sharks Swim Into Chicago

If there’s one thing this team has been able to do in recent years, it’s fight through adversity. When faced with ugly circumstances, this team has faced each challenge head-on, often coming out on top, but never going down without a fight. Remember last season, when we fell behind to Calgary 5 – 0 in the first period, but fought back to win 6 – 5 in overtime? I hope we see that kind of who-says-we-can’t attitude tonight when the Blackhawks take on the San Jose Sharks at the UC. 12 of the players from that game will be on the ice tonight.

The Sharks are coming off a loss to lowly Minnesota, which follows being shut out by Los Angeles on Monday. Offensively San Jose is an open book. Their top-six forwards, plus defenseman Dan Boyle, are scoring threats. The rest of the team are no more useful than figure skaters in hockey gear. Keep those seven guys under wraps, and the Blackhawks can win.

The only real question is who will start in goal: Antero Nittymaki or former Blackhawk Antti Niemi. Despite having nearly identical save percentages, Nittymaki has won 80% of his games, and Niemi has a losing record. At this point I’m not sure there is a benefit to seeing one or the other, save the emotional thrill of beating the goalie that left us in the off-season. But the ‘Hawks will get that chance, as Niemi was announced as the starter for tonight’s game just after the Sharks’ morning practice.

But the goaltender 178 feet away is the least of our problems this evening. Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews went into the boards awkwardly following a check during the Blues game on Tuesday, and is going to be out for at least two weeks with a shoulder injury. Normally Captain Serious is the one leading the charge when things get tough. Not this time.

With our captain and first-line center out of the lineup, there are some decisions to be made. The one that makes the mind twist and turn is, how are lines going to be configured?

Patrick Sharp has had some good success at center, and with Toews out he’s the strongest player at that position. So it makes sense that he would assume the center slot in the top line, though that’s not a guarantee. That leaves us with three natural centers in the lineup: Dave Bolland, Jake Dowell, and newcomer Ryan Johnson. Tomas Kopecky has played at center before also, with moderate success. Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are both back (thank God), so we have a full complement of wingers to play with. What’s this going to look like come game time?

Coach Joel Quenneville is notorious for changing lines dozens of times per game, but here is the way it looked at practice, according to the mainstream press that were there: Sharp centering Kane and Dowell — although that may change into Dowell centering Sharp and Kane; Bolland centering Hossa and Bryan Bickell; Kopecky between Viktor Stalberg and Troy Brouwer; and Johnson centering Jack Skille and John Scott. Everyone was quick to emphasize that this may not stick, so we should all be ready for some holy-shit on-the-fly lines hitting the ice starting about 10 minutes into the action.

On the back end, the Blues game was a return to the same bone-headed plays we’ve seen out of three repeat offenders: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nick Boynton. Duncs and Seabrook are back to the same kind of play that drew them the ire of fans and media alike in the first 20 games of the year; and Nick Boynton is a leopard who can’t change his spots — blind passes to empty ice, panicking with the puck despite nobody being around him for 50 feet, and handing the puck over to opposing forwards on a silver platter. From the reigning Norris Trophy winner down to the league-minimum grunts filling out the roster, last game was a defensive catastrophe. If that continues tonight, no measure of spectacular goaltending or offensive fireworks will rescue us.

Marty Turco is the announced starter, and that announcement was made after practice yesterday. This indicates either a renewed confidence in our veteran netminder, or that youngster Corey Crawford is still not healthy enough to take the start following a bout with the flu just after Christmas. Either way, Turco will need to reprise his 40-save performance against St. Louis for the ‘Hawks to have a chance.

This one’s going to be interesting. Jeff had some STATS up this morning, and it turns out that the Sharks are 7-0-2 in their last 9 visits to Chicago. That has to change. We’re up against a powerful offensive team with a key part of our lineup sitting out. This game will be a good indicator of how this team is going to respond during Toews’ absence.

Game time is 7:30pm at the United Center. TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers should look for the game on channel 208.

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