Last 10: Detroit 6-3-1; Chicago 5-4-1
Season series: The Wings hold a 1-0 edge in the season series after topping the Hawks 3-2 in Chicago's home opener on Oct. 9.
Big story: A year after Chicago broke through and ended Detroit's decade-long domination of the NHL's Central Division, the Blackhawks seem to be letting their Stanley Cup rings weigh them down in the standings. The Red Wings have built a comfortable cushion over their Original Six rival, but with five more to be played between these two, Friday is one of a few opportunities for the Hawks to gain some ground in a competitive division race.
Red Wings: Last season's second-place finish was an unusual scare that the Winged Wheel's advancing age might finally be catching up, but this season has shown that might have merely been a blip on the radar for hockey's dominant franchise of the last two decades. Detroit has a five- and eight-point lead in the Central over its closest trailers, Nashville and Columbus, respectively, and while many might assume the Hawks to be the Red Wings' biggest threat down the stretch, the Wings have an eight-point lead and three games in hand on the defending champs.
If anything, Detroit, which has won three of its last four, might be showing that not only is the age of some of its stars irrelevant, but that some old dogs can learn new hat tricks. In the Wings' last outing, a 5-2 win against St. Louis on Wednesday, future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom lit the lamp three times for the first trifecta of his 19-year career. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Henrik Zetterberg on the ice with you. The Swede tallied 4 assists against the Blues, giving him 8 points in his last five games, but an even bigger help for the team might be goalie Jimmy Howard. While Howard has endured a recent rough stretch, winning only two of his last five starts, his league-leading 17 victories are evidence that youth, too, is being served in the Motor City.
Blackhawks: While Friday's showdown with the Wings is a big opportunity for the Hawks to climb back into the Central race, it may loom larger as an opportunity to simply stem Chicago's recent slide. The Blackhawks have lost three straight games, including a recent home-and-home sweep at the hands of Colorado, which has given them a significant amount of ground to make up as the season nears its midway point. While those three losses are troublesome, Chicago's situation in net might be even more dire. After an impressive stretch in November, young goaltender Corey Crawford may be coming back to Earth. Crawford's last three outings have left him on the short side of the ledger and he surrendered two goals in relief of starter Marty Turco in Colorado on Monday before giving up four more against the Avs on Wednesday night at the United Center.
Those losses can't be put on the shoulders of Chicago's offense either. While the Hawks have struggled with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane out for extended periods, they did score eight goals in those two games with the Avalanche. Jonathan Toews has done his part with 3 goals and 4 assists in the last five games, but Chicago will continue to struggle without more production from Patrick Sharp. Despite being among the league leaders in scoring, Sharp has just 1 goal and 1 assist in the last six games.
Who's hot: Right wing Danny Cleary has provided some solid scoring punch for Detroit lately, tallying 2 goals and 3 assists in his last four games. … Bryan Bickell has given the Hawks a surprising boost with 4 goals and 2 assists in his last five games.
Injury report: The Red Wings remain without Mike Modano, who has been on IR indefinitely since late November after having surgery on his right wrist. … Chicago is still making do without the services of Marian Hossa (lower-body injury) and Patrick Kane (ankle), but the Hawks may also be without Fernando Pisani and Viktor Stalberg, who are both questionable with upper-body injuries.
Stat pack: The point has been hashed and rehashed already this season, but it bears repeating just how profound a difference Chicago has experienced on home ice this season. After dominating at the United Center a season ago, the Blackhawks are only 8-9-0 in Chicago in the current campaign. That they have nine home losses by mid-December is nothing less than remarkable considering they lost all of 11 games at the UC in the entire 2009-10 regular season.
Puck drop: Friday's outcome obviously will have a far greater impact for Chicago than Detroit. The Blackhawks are struggling in ways that will be difficult for the young team to cope with after a championship season in which most breaks went its way. Still, while the Red Wings will remain in first place regardless come Saturday morning, one can't underestimate a valuable opportunity to an early potential knockout punch to a division rival.