Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Well! What a difference 6 months makes.

6 months and one day ago, Antti Niemi was stellar between the pipes for Chicago as the Blackhawks swept the San Jose Sharks from the Western Conference Finals on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.

Now, Niemi is struggling in net for the Sharks, and both teams are shadows of their former selves. Chicago is hovering just one point above the 8th spot in the West; and if the playoffs were to start today, the Sharks would be scouting good tee times. So while on the surface this game appears to be a heated re-match of last year’s playoff encounter, in reality it will likely come down to which team sucks less.

The Sharks have been streaky this year: win two, lose two. Win three, lose three. They are coming off a loss and two OT defeats in their last three games, due in no small part to feeble goaltending. Neither Niemi nor starter Antero Nittymaki could get their team through overtime in their previous two efforts, and neither Colorado nor Dallas needed more than 3 shots to dent the twine for the game-winner. With Niemi’s 3.93 GAA, that honestly should come as a surprise to nobody.

Offense has been San Jose’s bread and butter for some time now, with Uber-Players Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley leading the charge on the team’s first line. They are getting goal support from other players too this year, with Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelski and defenseman Dan Boyle close behind in the points race. That explains why the Sharks have scored five or more goals in 5 of their 9 wins so far this season.

Defense hasn’t been stellar so far, with half of their core lineup hovering at or below the +1 mark, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic bringing up the rear with a -10 on the season. Former Blackhawks draft pick Kent Huskins is a bright spot, with two assists and a +7 in 19 games.

The slow start to the year has San Jose fans puzzled, and the blogosphere talking trade. One thing is for sure: this is not last year’s Sharks.

So much the better, because this is not last year’s Blackhawks either. This time last year, the Blackhawks were wrapping up an 8-game winning streak that would leave their record at 16-5-2. This year, the Hawks longest winning streak is 4 games, and their record is 11-10-2.

Confidence should be high in the locker room, however: the Blackhawks’ had 13 players with at least one point in Saturday’s 7 – 1 win over Vancouver, chasing long-time whipping-boy Roberto Luongo in the process. It was a night for the stars to come out and play: Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Jonathan Toews all lit the lamp, and Marian Hossa had 3 assists on the night.

Also starting to shine more brightly is Troy Brouwer, who has two goals in as many games and is starting to assert himself more decisively. Recently-written-off Fernando Pisani has four points in five games; and don’t look now, but Viktor Stalberg is fifth on the team with six goals, and he hasn’t even adjusted to playing with Kane and Toews yet. If that line ever gels the way it potentially could, they could change games all by themselves.

Goaltending remains solid: both netminders are above .900 save percentage and below 3.00 GAA, and one more win puts Corey Crawford back at the .500 mark for the year.

The weak spot continues to be defense, where the play of (though it pains me to say it) Duncan Keith deserves to be singled out as particularly sub-par. At least once a period he’s making a bad pass, getting his pocket picked, or losing a battle against the boards that allows a scoring chance for the opposing team.

It’s almost to the point of asking, “What’s wrong with the kid?” Bad breakup with the fiancee? Family member sick? Paying too much for car insurance? This is *not* the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman we saw last year, and honestly, something needs to be done about it. I have a feeling that if Dunc gets his act together this team will start to see a substantial rebound. In my opinion, somebody needs to take the reins on that task. Coach Q…

Late start tonight: puck drops at 9:30pm Chicago time. It’s a national broadcast on the NHL Network, though Chicago viewers will see the game on WGN. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers should tune in to channel 205

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