By Allan Muir
Sharks at Blackhawks: 7:30 CST, NHL Network (US), CSN Chicago, CSN California
The Blackhawks can lay claim to the best start in NHL history against the Sharks tonight. Their shootout win over Vancouver on Wednesday gave Chicago a point in 16 straight games and a share of the current mark set in 2006-07 by the Anaheim Ducks. They’ll face a feckless San Jose side that finally snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over St. Louis on Tuesday. After going unbeaten in their first seven games, the Sharks have seen their offense go cold, but they’re coming off two days of practice time that allowed them to work on the power play and at generating chances five-on-five.
This will be the third meeting between these two teams in 18 days, so familiarity may breed contempt. It’ll be worth watching to see if any hostilities carry over from their last get-together, when captains Jonathan Toews and Joe Thornton dropped the gloves.
Keys to the game
• Blackhawks: Get a lead and stomp down hard on the gas pedal. They allowed the Canucks to dictate the pace early on Wednesday, then coasted through the third period after a thoroughly dominant second, ultimately coughing up a point with sloppy play and lazy penalties as the game wore down. They can’t afford to let the Sharks circle and wait for them to let up.
• Sharks: Commit to ugly, goalmouth hockey. There’s no offensive flow on this team right now. They’ve scored two goals or less in regulation in nine of their last 10 games and the power play that propelled their hot start has just two goals to show for its last 42 chances. So forget pretty and fight off the instinct to make that one last pass. Get as many pucks on net as possible and follow them to the crease with grim purpose.
• Probable starting goalies: Ray Emery (6-0-0, 2.27 GAA, .925 save pct.) vs. Antti Niemi (7-2-3, 1.86, .933)
• Duncan Keith: He’s back in Norris Trophy form, chewing up big minutes, providing rock-solid defense and chipping in with five points in his last three games.
• Patrick Sharp: He’s been noticeably more involved in the past two games, and has six points over his last six.
• Patrick Kane: He’s been the model of consistency, scoring in 14 of 16 games, with multiple points in seven contests.
• Jonathan Toews: Hope someone’s taking notes because Toews is lecturing the rest of the league on how to be a captain. His plus-10 rating is a fair indication of his commitment to two-way play.
• Chicago’s penalty kill: Currently humming along at an 87.9 rate of proficiency, third-best in the league, its aggressive nature startled the Canucks early, leading to a pair of Chicago breakaway chances on the same kill.
• Antti Niemi: He’s the only one who has been keeping victory within reach for the Sharks, allowing more than one goal just twice in his last six starts.
• Patrick Marleau: Everyone’s choice for MVP after the season’s first two weeks has seen his mitts turns to stone. That he has just two points in his last nine games isn’t simply bad puck luck. He needs to compete.
• Joe Thornton: See above. Nine games, two points. Not showing enough battle to be effective. He won the fight against Toews, but took three or four crosschecks after being boarded before he was finally willing to engage. It’s too much to ask for his blood to boil at a lower temperature, right?
• The rest of the Sharks offense: No need to embarrass them all by name, is there?
• Viktor Stalberg: Absent from the Hawks’ score sheet over his last five games and he rarely seems to be involved in the play.
Everyone in San Jose’s room needs to look around and then ask himself if he wants to continue playing with this group, because another lackluster effort moves the likelihood of a shake-up trade close to 100 percent. So win with these guys, for these guys, or get ready for a change.
Player to watch
Marian Hossa practiced Thursday after being knocked for a loop by Jannik Hansen’s forearm shiver on Wednesday. No telling if he’s 100 percent, but the fact that he was involved is a good sign. He was Chicago’s best player — his second goal was a superlative individual effort — before being knocked out of the game and he seems to be shaking out of an offensive mini-slump.
The Hawks have been a marvel to this point, a machine of efficiency. But, as coach Todd MacLellan told the San Jose Mercury News, “Somebody’s got to stop them eventually. We’re the next team on the list so let’s do it.” I think Niemi steals this one. I’m calling it 2-1 for the Sharks.