Photo: John Gress, Reuters

And so, it begins: the home stretch of the regular season, kicked off by a 9-game road trip over the next 20 days, during which we take on 8 different Western Conference opponents starting tonight with our old friends the Vancouver Canucks.

So how have LuLu Belle and the Tampon Twins been lately, anyhow?

Well, LuLu is playing so well that his coach doesn’t trust him to play the Big Bad Blackhawks who made him cry; and just before the All-Star break the Tampons were held to a single point, going minus-4 between them against the one-point-out-of-last-place Lightning. Not exactly what you call inspiring performances.

And the team isn’t faring much better on the whole. Sure, they are leading the Northwest Division and sit 2nd in the Conference, but that’s a little misleading. They are tied with Chicago and Nashville in terms of points, and are behind both Detroit and St. Louis — they only have that 2nd-place slot due to Division leaders getting precedence. Helps that the conference they’re in has 3 teams currently out of the playoffs and one clinging to the 8th spot by their skate laces.

During the 10 games in January, the Canucks are 6-2-2, but again that’s misleading. 8 of those games were decided by one goal — 5 of them went to overtime and/or a shootout. This team is not dominating anybody, and there are two reasons for that: their “saviour” goaltender is not walking on water anymore; and their one-trick-pony offense can be shut down by neutralizing the feminine hygiene brothers.

Luongo has actually been improving, but that wasn’t hard to achieve after such a dismal start to the year. And although he hasn’t been yanked since giving up 3 goals on 15 shots against Nashville just after Thanksgiving, he is 4-3-2 in his last 9. His last outright loss, a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Anaheim, he let in 4 goals on 34 shots, for a .882 save percentage. This is definitely *not* the Roberto Luongo of years gone by, and not in a good way.

As for the Canucks’ offense, their stats sheet tells the entire story, and the tale is even more pronounced than in years past. Henrietta, 52 points. Danielle, 51 points. The next forward on the stats sheet, Ryan Kesler, 33 points. And the numbers go down from there. Shut down the Sedins, and the Canucks can’t generate enough offensive support to win games. It’s as simple as that.

That’s what the Blackhawks will be trying to do tonight, as the team shakes off the rust from a week’s rest, welcomes back their Captain and gets used to a new face in the dressing room.

First, the good news. Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp are traveling with the team, and both of them participated in a full practice on Monday. The not-quite-as-good news is that we will likely only see Tazer suit up for tonight’s matchup. But look for Shooter to be working on regaining his full range of motion and getting himself into the lineup before the team leaves the snowy northlands.

With Captain Serious rejoining the team we must say goodbye to some of our favorite rookie call-ups: Brandon Pirri and Ben Smith were sent down to Rockford last Wednesday, and stand-out Jimmy Hayes joined them on Saturday. The reason for Hayes’ demotion was the acquisition of a new forward by the Blackhawks.

36-year-old center Brendan Morrison joins the Blackhawks via a trade with Calgary on Friday. Morrison has over 900 games played in the NHL, notching 200 goals and 400 assists in that time, and is a cumulative plus-90. At 5’11” and 176 lbs. he was not brought into replace the grit and gristle of Daniel Carcillo; instead, Morrison adds veteran stability and a good face-off percentage to the bottom-six forward corps.

Now, what’s that you say, Tim? Bottom-six? I see he’ll be on the second line with Marian Hossa tonight. That is correct. That won’t last. In fact, if it lasts the game I will be more than a little surprised. Morrison doesn’t have the speed to keep up with Hossa, and he is better suited for a fourth-line role centering guys like Jamal Mayers and Andrew Brunette. This second-line center fantasy of Stan Bowman’s is cute and all, but hopefully Junior comes to his senses soon enough.

Administrative nonsense: Andrew Ebbett is the only injury of note for the Canucks; Sharp is officially a game-time decision, but likely we’ll know after the morning skate if his wrist is well enough for him to play at full capacity. We’ll update you via Twitter when we know more. As was mentioned, the Canucks’ whiny-bitch Coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t want the fragile ego of his number one netminder to be bruised by another shellacking at the hands of his arch nemesis, so we will be facing Cory Schneider between the pipes tonight; we will see whether the week’s hiatus has been enough for Corey Crawford to chase off the ghosts of his last few shaky outings when he gets the start in goal for Chicago.

Late start from Vancouver tonight, 9:00pm puck drop at B.C. Place. The game is being carried on WGN here in Chicago, but will be seen live coast-to-coast north of the border on the flagship TSN. WGN AM-720 has your broadcast radio coverage; XM listeners will find the game on channel 92; and Sirius Premiere customers can tune in on channel 207.

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