Sharks-Blackhawks: What to watch for

February 10, 2012, 8:46 pm
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SAN JOSE A pair of struggling teams meet at HP Pavilion tonight when the Sharks host the Chicago Blackhawks in the fourth and final game of their season series.

San Jose will be trying to end a two-game losing streak and has dropped five of eight overall (3-4-1), but that pales in comparison to Chicagos 0-5-1 stretch in which its been outscored 27-12.

The Sharks havent been good defensively, either, surrendering an uncharacteristic nine goals (one in an empty net) in their past two games in losses to Phoenix and Calgary.

Too loose, too many freebies and too many turnovers, is how head coach Todd McLellan described it on Friday morning. If were playing the way I believe we can, well fix those areas, and well still be in for a tight game. Theyre a group trying to fix their own issues, and Im sure theyll come out with a lot of fire early in the game and well have to match that.

Bad changes, turnovers, giving up odd-man rushes, Couture said about the Sharks recent issues. Thats something that we need to work on here, starting tonight.

The Sharks are 1-1-1 against Chicago this season, which will play its fifth game of a nine-game road trip.

It's the final home game for the Sharks until Feb. 28, when they host Philadelphia. San Jose embarks on a nine-game road trip of its own beginning on Sunday at St. Louis.

Stop the top line: The Blackhawks top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg was nothing short of dominant in a 4-3 Chicago win over the Sharks on Jan. 15, combining for five points and 17 shots on goal.

Kane and Toews have obviously spent plenty of time on the same line together throughout their brief yet productive careers, but were split up midway through Chicagos 5-2 loss to Colorado three nights ago. Instead, Toews was with Marian Hossa and Michael Frolik while Kane skated with Marcus Kruger and Patrick Sharp.

Dont be shocked to see them back together against San Jose, even though they remained apart during Chicagos practice at HP Pavilion on Thursday.

They spent most of that last head-to-head matchup in Chicago against the Sharks top line, centered by Joe Thornton.

You know theyre going to be in your end a little bit, Thornton said. I think when theyre in your end, just have your assignments, dont get puck-focused, and realize the puck has to come to the middle of the ice, so just protect from there.

Boyle back: As reported earlier, Dan Boyle will be back on the blue line for the Sharks, who sorely missed the veteran defenseman against Calgary when he sat out with the flu.

In 50 games, Boyle has four goals and 25 assists for 29 points and 53 penalty minutes.

He means a lot to our team, and real important that hes back in, McLellan said.

Keep clicking on offense: The Sharks' defensive struggles in the last two games have masked what has been a generally solid performance on the offensive side. That includes two of the Sharks big guns in Thornton and Logan Couture, each of whom bring scoring streaks into tonights game.

Couture has 10 points in his last seven games (5g, 5a), while Thornton eight points in his last four games (3g, 5a).

When youre on a groove like that the puck kind of follows you around and you feel like you get more chances on the ice, Couture said. You get some prime chances, and somehow the puck finds you in the other teams end. Im not sure how many games its been, but hopefully it can keep going.

McLellans challenge is to keep the team clicking on offense, while tightening up defensively and avoiding the blatant mistakes.

You fix one and the other breaks down on you. We cant be chasing, we have to have a complete game, he said. Its great that were finding ways to score three, which is our number, but when youre giving up four youre not putting any points in the bank. There will be a focus on the defensive commitment from both teams.

Niemi vs. Crawford: The Sharks will stick with Antti Niemi in net tonight, and the Blackhawks Corey Crawford will oppose him.

Niemi has had success against his former team for the most part, but allowed four goals on 40 shots at the United Center in the 5-2 loss. In his career, hes 4-2-1 with a 2.59 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, including one shutout on Nov. 23 against Chicago at HP Pavilion.

Hes played well against them in the past and hes due for a good game. We believe in him, McLellan said.

In four career starts against the Sharks, Crawford has a 2-1-1 record with a 2.23 GAA and .919 SP.
Odds and ends: The Blackhawks will be without the services of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, out with a lower-body injury. Defenseman Steve Montador is out with an upper-body injury. Patrick Sharp has two goals and two assists in the last three games. Patrick Marleau has three goals and three assists in the last four games. Brent Burns has five assists in the last three games.