Frequent-flyer Blackhawks set for six-game challenge
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Following Tuesday’s practice, the Blackhawks hit the road again, this time taking a season-long six-game road trip that will cover more than 5,600 miles over the course of two weeks. All of this, mind you, coming after a road schedule that has taken them to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and Columbus over 10 days.
Ahead for the Hawks is a grueling schedule against some of the toughest competition the NHL’s Western Conference has to offer.
Jan. 30 at Minnesota: Though the Wild have not gotten out to a great start, going just 2-2-1 in their first five contests, the record belies the improvements to both the team’s forwards and blue line. Wild winger Zach Parise has made a good first impression with the Twin Cities faithful, recording nine points (5G, 4A), which leads the team. Meanwhile, rookie center Mikael Granlund has only put up one goal and one assist, but ask anyone who has seen him playing in his native Finland or at the World Junior Championship and they’ll tell you how explosive a playmaker he can be. On the back end, Ryan Suter is now Minnesota’s top defenseman and power play QB, moving over from Nashville. And don’t sleep on goaltending duo Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding – either one has the potential to steal a game with a few crucial saves.
Feb. 1 at Vancouver: Two teams who are… shall we say, “well-acquainted” with one another through years of tough, feisty and contentious contests, will face off to start the month of February. Though the Canucks are down two forwards in Ryan Kesler and David Booth, both injured, they still feature a dynamic top line with the Sedin brothers leading the way, as well as some increased sandpaper in the form of Zack Kassian. Meanwhile, both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider remain in B.C., and either netminder could get the call against the Blackhawks.
Feb. 2 at Calgary: Their third game in four nights, the Blackhawks must avoid being caught off-guard against Calgary, who still features one of the league’s best captains in Jarome Iginla and All-Star goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. The Blackhawks lost both games in the Scotiabank Saddledome last season by a combined score of 8-3. If history is any indicator, Ray Emery could get the nod for this game: he's 4-2 with a 1.57 goals-against average in his career versus the Flames.
Feb. 5 at San Jose: It’s unlikely that either team will still be undefeated when the Blackhawks and Sharks meet at HP Pavilion, but that doesn’t change the fact that the two teams have arguably been the league’s best since opening day. On the Sharks’ side, Patrick Marleau has been nothing short of sensational, scoring nine goals in his first five games. Recent acquisition Brad Stuart’s plus/minus rating is a strong +8, and three of the league’s top five scorers play for San Jose (Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski).
Feb. 7 at Phoenix: For the first time this season, the Blackhawks will face an opponent for a second go-around when they visit the Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena. Chicago topped Phoenix the first time out, 6-4, as Dave Bolland recorded three points (2G, A) and Ray Emery made 25 stops. The Coyotes have improved since that game, though: they have won both of their home games since hosting Chicago, beating Columbus, 5-1, and blanking Nashville, 4-0.
Feb. 10 at Nashville: The final stop on the road trip, the Blackhawks visit their divisional rival down in the Music City. Nashville has yet to really get their offense going, averaging less than two goals per game through their six contests this season. But any team with defenseman Shea Weber is one to be respected, and it’s expected that goalie Pekka Rinne’s GAA will not stay at 2.68 for long. Like most divisional rivals, these two teams know each other well and play tough no matter what the circumstances; the Blackhawks are 5-5-2 in the past two seasons against the Predators.