Season series -- This will be the only meeting of the season for the Hawks and Leafs. Chicago won the lone matchup last year, a 5-4 overtime affair at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 22, 2008.
Big story -- Following a rough home loss to Minnesota, the Leafs attempt to continue their march back to playoff contention against the Hawks, who are looking for their third straight win.
Maple Leafs -- After a start to the season that was about as difficult as it was long, Toronto has suddenly begun to climb up the standings. The Leafs still sit seven points out of the East's top eight, but before their loss to Minnesota on Tuesday the Leafs had collected points in seven straight games. With more than three-fourths of the season yet to be played, Toronto has more than enough time to make its disastrous start a distant memory.
Much of the Leafs' turnaround can be attributed to Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson. While he was held pointless in his Leafs debut on Nov. 3, Kessel has scored two goals and tallied two assists over the three games since. Gustavsson, who appears to have taken the starting job for Toronto, has provided the Leafs with the steady play between the pipes they lacked at the beginning of the season. Despite Gustavsson's performance, Vesa Toskala is expected to get the nod in Chicago with the Leafs playing on back-to-back nights.
Blackhawks -- Coming off three straight losses on the road, Chicago is happy to be home -- and it shows. The Hawks are coming off impressive wins over Los Angeles and Northwest division-leading Colorado. It is likely no coincidence that these wins coincided with the return of captain Jonathan Toews. The Winnipeg native has a point in both games since missing more than two weeks with a concussion.
The Hawks have continued to get strong performances out of Cristobal Huet, who looks well past his early season stumbles. Huet had 25 saves and was sharp in the shootout portion of Chicago's win over the Avs on Wednesday. With a six-game road trip looming, Huet and the Hawks are doing well to rack up points at home. A win would be Chicago's sixth straight at the United Center, a trick it hasn't turned since a seven-game run nearly eight years ago.
Who's hot -- While the acquisition of Kessel has added a dynamic presence to Toronto's offense, Alexei Ponikarovsky shouldn't be overlooked. The winger has four points over the last five games including a two-goal performance against Montreal on Halloween. For Chicago, Patrick Kane keeps humming along. Kane has at least a point in eight of the last nine games.
Injury report --Marian Hossa is still a week or two from joining the Hawks' lineup after offseason shoulder surgery. Dave Bolland is also out for three-four months after back surgery. Toronto's blue line will be a little thinner until December, as the Leafs announced Thursday that Mike Komisarek would miss three weeks with a quadricep tear.
Stat pack -- It isn't a stretch to say the biggest part of Toronto's recent run has been Gustavsson's emergence as the Leafs' starting goaltender. The Swedish rookie has a 2.77 goals against average with a .912 save percentage. While those numbers are hardly gaudy, they are a vast improvement over Toskala's, whose .836 save percentage seems impressive only when compared with his 5.13 GAA.
Puck drop -- While a win for the Hawks would set them up to sweep their current homestand when the finale against San Jose comes Sunday, a win for the Leafs could be eminently more meaningful. Toronto does boast wins over Anaheim and Detroit, but it still only has three of them. A road victory against the vaunted Blackhawks could be a major rallying point -- and a nice confidence boost for the much maligned Toskala. More than that, however, a victory for Toronto could help erase some painful history with its Original Six rival. The Leafs have lost their last four outings against Chicago, with their last win over the Hawks coming more than six and a half years ago.