Nov 17, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) shoots the puck against San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi (31) and defenseman Brad Stuart (7) during the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Chicago Blackhawks sure do seem to be running into the top-dogs, of the Western Conference, quite a bit lately. Tonight, it is the San Jose Shark’s turn, to try taking down the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
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Both teams are very close to each other, statistically, and there’s no question that both these teams, are two of the best of the West. However, the edge has to go to the Sharks, in this one. Offensively, the Hawks are a better team, while San Jose is no slouch, as they are right behind the Hawks, in most offensive categories. While the Hawks’ Penalty Kill, and Team Save Percentages leave much to be desired, the Sharks have been solid, in both categories.
The Sharks are currently sitting in 2nd place, in the Pacific Division, trailing the red-hot Anaheim Ducks, by a decent margin, of 7 points. In the last 10 games, the Sharks have gone 6-4-0, which is a bit off their season pace. San Jose is lead by big Joe Thornton, who while he has only 5 goals, this season, leads the league in assists, with 42. Most of those assists are dished out to fellow scorers Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture. The Sharks will be without rookie sensation, Tomas Hertl, who was, and still is very much in the race for the Calder Trophy. Veteran defenseman, Dan Boyle always makes his presence felt, and is a threat, from the blueline.
In net, former Hawk Stanley Cup Champ, Antti Niemi, is likely to be the man, between the pipes, for the Sharks. Although, he is having an okay season, Niemi’s season has been a little bit bewlow expectations, as he has put up a modest .911 Save Percentage, in 37 games played.
The Blackhawks are currently leading the highly competitive Central Division. However, their 1st place ranking, in the division, is a bit of a mirage, as the St. Louis Blues trail by only 3 points, and also have played 3 less games, than the Hawks. The Hawks have gone 6-1-3, in their last 10 games. Every win and every game is important, if the Hawks want to keep the red-hot Blues, in their rear-view mirror. Pick a Patrick, any Patrick, as both Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp are offensively setting the league on fire, while playing on separate lines. Jonathan Toews is always the leader of the Hawks, and as the 1st line center, he has a lot to do with Sharp’s success, this season. Contributing to the success of all the Blackhawks star forwards, even the ones not mentioned, is defenseman Duncan Keith, who is the other player sharing the NHL lead, in assists, along with Thornton, of San Jose.
In net, is likely to be Corey Crawford, making his 2nd start, since returning from injury. Crawford looked fantastic, in his return, against the New York Islanders, as he was heavily tested, and regularly bailed the Hawks’ out of careless turnovers. In that game, Crawford stopped 31 of 34 shots faced, and made some very impressive saves.
As we are just passed the midseason mark, these games are becoming of more transparent importance, as teams are starting to settle into their respective range finishes, in the standings. Both the Sharks and the Blackhawks are in the thick of races for 1st place, in their respective highly competitive Western Conference divisional races. Every game is becoming more clearly important, at this stage in the season, and this potential Western Conference Championship preview, is no exception.