CHICAGO – One of the biggest difficulties for a coaching staff in a shortened, condensed season, is the lack of practice time at home. The 10-0-3 Chicago Blackhawks are proving that may be a bit overrated, though.
Chicago is the last team in the NHL without a regulation loss, recently returning from a six-game road swing. They have played just three games at home, the most recent a 3-2 shootout loss to Anaheim on Tuesday. They had the day off on Wednesday, but reconvened for practice at the United Center on Thursday morning, skating for about an hour.
“That was the first practice we had all year, really,” Patrick Sharp said.
Patrick Kane said: “They gave us the day off yesterday, so it’s nice to kind of get away from these guys a little bit. You spend two weeks every day with them on the road, it’s nice to do something a little bit different.”
Chicago will host the struggling Sharks on Friday night. The teams met once already on Feb. 5, when the 7-1-1 Sharks were looking to overtake the 7-0-2 Blackhawks for the top spot in the Western Conference.
How things have changed in just nine days. The Blackhawks have a four-point lead for the top overall spot in the league, while the Sharks are in the midst of a six-game losing skid (0-3-3).
The Sharks raced out to a 3-1 lead in the first period of the previous meeting, only to have the Blackhawks tie it up before the first intermission. Chicago went on to a 5-3 win, aided in part by the awful match penalty to Andrew Desjardins. Kane scored the game-winner in the second when the Sharks should have been on a four-minute power play.
“I remember it was a quick first period,” Marian Hossa said. “We [got] down two goals, and it was 3-1. All of a sudden, we came back and it was 3-3. It was a wild first period.”
Head coach Joel Quenneville said: “Interesting game. Pucks were going in early in the game, and I liked our response. … Tough building to go into, and then watching them take it to us, but it was a good response.”
Since the loss to Chicago, the Sharks have scored just two goals in their last three games and have been shut out twice, including Tuesday night in Nashville.
“It doesn’t change much from our perspective,” Sharp said. “They’re still a top team across the league, and if anything it makes them hungrier for a win, especially being on the road. Tough game when we played them in their building, and I assume it’s going to be the same tomorrow.”
Hossa said: “They had an unbelievable start at the beginning, the top line was extremely hot. Obviously sometimes, every team is going to hit that type of slump. They’ve lost a few games, but when you look at it, they have an unbelievable team, so we want to make sure we’re ready for them because they’ll be desperate and ready for us.”
The Sharks’ power play is just 2-for-34 in the last six games, but it still frightens Quenneville.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for their power play, and they can get hot in that area real quick,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of guys that know how to score. They’ve go to the net, they put a lot of pucks at the net, and they make it challenging for you in that area. In stretches over the season, sometimes the pucks don’t go in for you. They have a tendency by doing the right things, eventually they get rewarded.”
Chicago will look to keep its point streak going, and is just three games away from the NHL record of consecutive games to start a season without a regulation loss (2006-07 Anaheim Ducks, 16 games). The Sharks have surrendered at least one point to the opposition in eight straight games, having not won in regulation since Jan. 27.
“It’s tough to say we don’t have any weaknesses, but it’s tough to find one in our game right now,” Kane said.
The Blackhawks will start backup Ray Emery in net, in what will be his home debut. Emery is 3-0-0 with a 2.59 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. He’ll almost certainly face former Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi for San Jose.