In the Blackhawks’ final home game before Christmas, the fans could get a real treat.
The Sharks and Blackhawks, who figure to battle for the top seed in the Western Conference for the rest of the season, only play each other two more times. The first of those games is Tuesday night at the United Center, and the final meeting is in San Jose on Jan. 28. Tuesday continues a tough stretch of games, with the Hawks playing Detroit twice in four days, the Sharks, and then a home-and-home with the second place Nashville Predators on Dec. 26-27; after those two games, the Hawks will not face the Preds the rest of the season.
There’s a chance that the top three forwards on the Sharks – Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Danny Heatley – have been pressing to solidify their position on Canada’s Olympic roster. Many Canadian analysts have suggest the three be put on the team and left together as a line, but their own coach has broken them up in an effort to spark the Sharks’ stagnant offense.
It is doubtful, though, that making the Olympic team will be the only motivating factor for San Jose on Tuesday. The last time these two teams played, in Marian Hossa’s first game for the Blackhawks back on Nov. 25, the Hawks dropped a 7-2 bomb on the Sharks in their building.
Thornton comes into Tuesday night’s game two points ahead of New York’s Marian Gaborik as the league’s leading scorer (9 G, 40 A, 49 pts), and both Heatley (21) and Marleau (23) have benefited from playing with him as both are among the top five goal scorers in the league.
The Blackhawks, however, will counter that great line with the best defense in the NHL. After consecutive shutouts from Cristobal Huet last week, and one from Antti Niemi, the Hawks now have the best goals against average (2.00) as a team in the entire NHL. Chicago is also giving up the fewest shots on goal as a team, 24.4, per game and dwarf the next-closest shots differential in the league at 8.6.
While the Sharks have their two elite goal scorers, the Blackhawks will continue to employ a diverse attack to the net. Only Heatley and Marleau have scored more than nine goals for San Jose, while five Blackhawks have 10 goals this year.
Leading the Blackhawks in both goals and assists is Patrick Kane (10 G, 24 A, 34 pts), and Duncan Keith is just behind him with 22 assists. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg have all scored their 10th goals in the Hawks’ last two games; with Troy Brouwer sitting on eight goals, could Tuesday night be time for him to join the party?
The last time these two teams met, Hossa scored two goals and the Hawks scored their first three goals short handed as they ran away from the Sharks early. Hossa was held without a shot on goal by his former teammates from Detroit on Sunday night, so he could be looking to pull the trigger often on Tuesday night as well.
In the first meeting between the two powerful offenses, that one on Nov. 15 in Chicago, the Blackhawks won 4-3 in overtime. In that game, a physical contest that didn’t see a single goal scored in the third period, it was Brent Seabrook ending the game only 41 seconds into the extra period with his second OT winner of the season. Of course Nov. 15 was Jeremy Roenick Heritage Night, celebrating the legacy of one of the great scoring forwards in Blackhawks’ history.
Tuesday night should be an entertaining game, and if the Blackhawks can repeat their performance from November it could be an ugly night for the Sharks.