Blackhawks face Jackets to begin eight-game road trip
BLACKHAWKS (32-11-4) at BLUE JACKETS (18-22-9)
Chicago 7-2-1; Columbus 4-4-2
The Hawks have won both meetings with the Blue Jackets this season, including a 3-0 shutout Thursday at the United Center.
The Hawks face a critical juncture of their season as they open their longest road swing of the year in the second half of a back-to-back with Columbus.
The Hawks had said they were determined not to hit the road on the heels of a three-game losing streak and they were quick to prove the point Thursday. Brian Campbell
scored just 61 seconds in to get Chicago off and running in an eventual 3-0 win over the rival Blue Jackets. Cristobal Huet
, who struggled in his last outing in Minnesota, was as dependable as ever between the pipes, stopping 24 shots for his fourth shutout of the year.
No doubt the Hawks felt the warmth of the cheering crowd at the United Center that night, and they'll need to cling to it for a while as Chicago will not be playing at home again this month. Saturday's visit to Columbus will be the first stop on a massive eight-game road trip that will take the Blackhawks from Ohio up to Ontario, across western Canada, down through California and then across the continent to Carolina. The extended trip could be the biggest obstacle left in the regular season for a Hawks team that is tied for the most points in the League.
Chicago won't return to the United Center until Feb. 3, but if the Hawks manage to get through their season-high sojourn relatively unscathed, they could be set to coast through the remainder of the season en route to their first division title in 17 years.
The Jackets are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the League, but surprisingly Thursday's loss to Chicago was their first shutout loss of the year. Still, Columbus has struggled offensively of late, scoring just three goals over the last three games. For answers to the mystery the Jackets should look no further than captain and franchise cornerstone Rick Nash. While Nash is still the team leader with 19 tallies this season, he has not scored in 11 games, the longest drought in his career.
Columbus has gotten offense from Raffi Torres, who has five points in his last seven games, and Antoine Vermette, who recently had a stretch of six points in four games. But in general the Jackets' offense is dragging in what has been a tremendously disappointing season for a team coming off its first ever playoff berth last season. If there is cause for hope Saturday, it could be from goaltender Mathieu Garon, who appears to have usurped the starting role from last year's Calder Trophy winner, Steve Mason. Garon is 3-0-2 with a 1.68 goals-against average in seven home games this season.
Kristian Huselius has been a bright spot for the Jackets recently, notching seven points in his last seven games. … In Chicago, Duncan Keith
continues to make the front office look smart for his extension earlier this season. The defenseman has eight points over a six-game scoring streak. Not to be outdone, winger Kris Versteeg has 11 points over his own scoring streak, which has now run to nine games.
Cam Barker may not play for Chicago after missing Thursday's win over the Jackets with an upper-body injury. Columbus may be without Fredrik Modin, who also missed Thursday's game with a bruised foot.
A road trip this long would seem daunting to a team like the Hawks, whose bread and butter has been dominating at home this season. But Chicago, which has 11 wins on the road, has done just fine away from home. On their annual circus trip in November, the Blackhawks finished a six-game trek through western Canada and California with a 4-1-1 mark while outscoring their opponents 21-9.
Columbus needs to start winning soon if it has any hopes of jumping back into the West playoff race, while it is important for Chicago to get off to a strong start on the current road swing. This is a crucial game for both teams, but the challenge is rather steep for the Jackets. With the Hawks going 4-1-1 in their last six games at Nationwide Arena, the deck seems heavily stacked against the boys from Ohio.