Blackhawks Buzz: March 23, 2014 vs. Nashville Predators
The Blackhawks will try to extend their win streak to three games on Sunday against the Nashville Predators after winning the first two tilts of their four-game homestand: a commanding 4-0 win over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday and a 3-2 result against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday. Gaining two points against the Preds—who defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in their last meeting 9 days ago—would not only even up the season series between the two teams, but also narrow the gap between Chicago and St. Louis at the top of the Central Division to just two points. Gaining every point they can at the UC will be important; after Tuesday's date with the Dallas Stars, the Blackhawks will hit the road, where they'll play six of their remaining nine regular-season games.
Matt Cullen's four-point effort on Friday led Nashville to a 6-5 victory at Calgary, snapping his three-game scoreless streak; he tallied the winning goal late in the third period and added three assists, including two on goals by Preds captain Shea Weber. Cullen ranks fourth among team forwards and sixth overall with 28 points (7G, 21A) in 66 games this season, including a goal and two helpers in three outings against Chicago.
Jonathan Toews' shorthanded tally early in the third period of Friday's game gave the Blackhawks the lead for good, just 31 seconds after the Hurricanes had tied the game on a 5-on-3 power play. It was the captain's third shortie of the season, tying him for the team lead with Marian Hossa (the pair also share fifth in the league), and the second time this season that a shorthanded goal stood up as the game-winner (Handzus vs. Philadelphia, Dec. 11). Toews has been held off the scoresheet just twice in his last 10 outings, compiling 11 points (9G, 2A) since the beginning of March.
Like he did in the first meeting between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes this season, Patrick Sharp coolly converted a breakaway chance to open the scoring for Chicago with a meaningful goal. Friday's tally was Sharp's 30th of the season, putting him in elite company: He became just the 10th player in franchise history to reach the 30-goal mark in four or more seasons. Sharp, like Team Canada teammates Toews and Duncan Keith, has been one of the team's most consistent point producers since the Olympic break, recording two goals and nine helpers in his last 10 games. Sharp needs just two more points to reach his career mark of 71, set in the 2010-11 season.
A number of late-season injuries have tested the Blackhawks' depth in recent weeks, but the club's role players have stepped up nicely. On Friday, in order to account for the loss of Brandon Saad, Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell, Joel Quenneville called upon players like Jeremy Morin, who logged a pair of hits in 6:52 in his first game after being recalled from Rockford IceHogs, and Brandon Bollig, who provided energy with a few shifts on the top line. On defense, Michal Rozsival's continued absence allowed David Rundblad to log his second game as a Blackhawk with 8:23 of ice time, as Sheldon Brookbank served as fourth-line wing. While their contributions may not be in points every single game, the ability of the depth players to keep up with Coach Q's up-tempo game plan could provide crucial structure and stability in the place of injured parties.
Nashville broke out of a three-game slump in a big way by netting six against Calgary on Friday, but they haven't been able to score consistently over the course of the season, ranking just 25th in team offense. The Blackhawks have run hot and cold recently, but a pair of convincing victories over rival St. Louis and a tenacious Carolina team last week could signal renewed focus and purpose in order to finish the regular season in the best possible position. The Preds, when they play to their fullest regimented potential, seek to stifle Chicago's creativity, so it will take a persistent forecheck and discipline in the neutral zone to break through and snag an important two points.