Photo: AP

It’s difficult to believe that less than a month ago, Chicago took down the San Jose Sharks at the United Center; and furthermore that the game was our second straight victory over San Jose this year. The only game we lost to the Sharks was in the Tank back in November on the Circus trip, and that was a 1-0 loss.

We can skate with this team. Well… we could skate with this team. Of late we can’t skate with Edmonton, or Colorado, or any one of a host of other teams that we should skate circles around. We’re having trouble beating the bottom feeders these days.

The Sharks are in first place in the Pacific Division. Oh Nellie, here we go…

Now, that’s not to say that San Jose doesn’t have its own problems. They just lost 2 straight to Calgary and Phoenix, and they are only 4-5-1 in their last 10 games. And despite the Blackhawks’ recent losing streak, the Sharks are still one point behind Chicago. So this is not a juggernaut team on a collision course with league dominance. San Jose is still the team we beat twice already this year. We just have to find a way to do it again.

The same set of names sit atop the Sharks stat sheet: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, and Ryan Clowe. Even with that arsenal at their disposal, the Sharks are rumored to be shopping for more scoring before the deadline. That’s even more surprising given that I-hurt-myself-jumping-over-the-boards genius Martin Havlat is due to return to the lineup within 2-4 weeks. (There were even rumors of Havlat suiting up tonight, but Sharks traitor/scumbag GM Doug Wilson has dismissed those reports.)

But surprisingly, the area where San Jose is excelling this season is defense. They are 5th in the league in goals against, compared with 11th in goals scored. Two-way blueliners Dan Boyle, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (“That’s the best tasting defenseman I ever heard!”) are all at or above a plus-10 for the year, while largely unheralded workhorse Douglas Murray carries the bulk of the stay-at-home duties.

And lo, what have we here? It’s no longer just the Finns in the Shark Tank? That’s right. When netminder Antero Niittymaki successfully rehabbed the hip that underwent surgery early in the season, he found he had become expendable thanks to newcomer Thomas Griess. The German youngster had repeated his solid performance from last season, going 7-4-1 backing up Antti Niemi, and the job was given to him permanently. Niittymaki was placed on waivers, sent down to Worcester, and has now been loaned to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL — coached, incidentally, by former Blackhawks defenseman Trent Yawney and 1995 Blackhawks draft pick Marty Wilford. But I digress…

In his last 4 outings, Griess is 3-0-1, with a 1.22 GAA and a save percentage nipping at the heels of .950. Chances are we’ll see Niemi in goal tonight, as Sharks’ Head Coach Todd McLellan thinks he has Chicago’s number. But if we get Griess instead, that’s bad news for us. The kid is on fire.

Speaking of being on fire, that’s about the state of the Blackhawks playoff hopes as they try to snap the now-six-game losing streak. We have all been keeping up to date on the last two weeks of woe and misery here on the site, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, so I will spare you a play-by-play of the unpleasantness. Instead, here is just the latest.

Niklas Hjalmarsson didn’t practice on Thursday, recovering from the flu bug that ran roughshod over the team in Denver. He apparently was feeling “much better” (according to Head Coach Joel Quenneville) but sat out to help get rested up for the game tonight. He is expected to be in the lineup. Fellow defenseman Steve Montador also did not practice on Thursday, nursing an upper-body injury. He is “doubtful” for the game against the Sharks. Jonathan Toews has had a less-than-noteworthy road trip thus far, slipping WAY below his usual 55-60% face-off win percentage and registering zero goals. Speculation is that his hand/wrist injury from January is still giving him trouble, and he is not playing at full capacity.

No news from GM Stan Bowman in the way of trades or acquisitions, though depending on who you listen to he is in the market for either a goalie, a defenseman, a center, a goalie and a center, a goalie and a defenseman, a center and a defenseman, a special teams coach, a hot pastrami and swiss on pumpernickel, a good deal on a used Lexus, a llama for his daughter’s birthday party, or a mint condition Joel Quenneville rookie card. He’s willing to part with the entire Rockford lineup plus Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford and Stan Mikita to acquire all of the above.

Or, you know, not.

Practice on Thursday looked like the players had sprung a joke on the media in attendance. To give you an example, Michael Frolik — who sat out as a healthy scratch not two weeks ago — was on the first line. The prevailing opinion was not to read too much into the way the forwards were running drills, and just wait for the morning skate on Friday for a more realistic view of what the team would look like when the puck drops tonight.

Administrative nonsense: As mentioned, Havlat is a no-go for the Sharks tonight, as is defenseman Jason Demers and some kid named Tommy Wingels who gets a mention here merely because he’s from Evanston, IL. Boyle was also said to be sick on Thursday, so we’ll assume he’s a game-time decision. For the Blackhawks, Montador’s injury may mean the return of John Scott to the lineup this evening, so the actual defensemen will have to work overtime after the tectonic plate gets his 4 minutes out of the way in the first period. McLellan rarely if ever announces his starting goaltender, but you can put money on it being Niemi. And with back-to-back games on the schedule Coach QStache has announced Crawford will get the start against San Jose.

Late start on the west coast: the puck won’t drop until 9:30pm Central time. The game is being shown in Chicago on WGN television, as well as live coast-to-coast on the NHL Network — but only in Canada (sorry…). Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720; XM subscribers should look for the game on channel 92; and Sirius Premiere customers can tune in on channel 207.

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