The last 3 years the Blackhawks have faced the Canucks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why should this year be any different? The way it’s shaping up right now, it’s a decent possibility that Vancouver will be the Blackhawks’ first-round opponent. Tonight’s game will give us a preview of what we can expect.

Tonight will also be a test of the Blackhawks’ mettle: can they continue their first period dominance? Can they beat teams that are ahead of them in the standings the way they have beaten teams below them? And can they continue their recent solid play in the absence of Captain Jonathan Toews?

Buckle up, people. This game’s going to be close: either be a hard-fought win, or a very disappointing loss. No blowout in sight this evening.

Vancouver sits atop the Northwest Division, 2nd in the Conference, and with less than 10 games remaining it is unlikely that the Canucks will move either up or down from that position. They are just as dominant on the road as they are at home, winning twice as many games as they have lost. They’re in a “slump” of sorts, with 5 regulation losses in their last 10 outings. But to my way of thinking, especially coming into a rivalry game like Chicago, that makes them more of a wounded animal — likely to be more vicious and unpredictable.

This is the 4th and last meeting of these two clubs this year, with Chicago’s record against Vancouver sitting at 1-1-1. Call this the “rubber” match, if you will. The last game was a tight one, with only 2 penalties called before the OT period began to settle a 2-2 tie. More’s the pity it was the Tampon Twins hooking up for the game-winner with just over a minute to go.

But that was January, before Vancouver acquired defensive center and face-off specialist Sammy Pahlsson, and Ogie Ogglethorpe impersonator Zack Kassian. You can almost hear the loose parts rattling around inside that gargantuan cranium. Both players will make tonight’s tilt all the more difficult, especially without Tazer in the lineup.

But there is one player on the Vancouver roster that will definitely make the Blackhawks’ night easier: Roberto Luongo. It’s been a week since his last start, since he’s been sucking wind of late (1-4 in his last 5), but he “…always love(s) playing in this building.” Well, Lulu Belle — you get your wish. Whiny bitch Alain Vigneault is giving you the start.

For the Blackhawks, Head Coach Joel Quenneville rarely changes his lineups between back-to-back games unless an injury forces him to do so. With the team healthy coming off the win over Columbus last night, you can expect a similar squad to take the ice. There is no announced starter as of this writing, but it would be surprising not to see Ray Emery man the crease after Corey Crawford’s solid effort against Columbus.

The last several ‘Hawks games have seen them do what they have rarely done all season: take control in the first period with quick, successive goals, and never relinquish the lead. Each of the last 3 games, the Blackhawks have come out charging with 2 or 3 goals in the first, then maintaining a consistent defensive posture while expanding that lead in the next 2 periods. This is a recipe for success, and whatever the team has done to make this transformation happen, don’t change it!

Some statistical tidbits for you: Andrew Shaw notched his 10th goal of the season last evening; Marcus Kruger will match that mark with his next tally; Viktor Stalberg only managed an assist against the Blue Jackets, so he gets no closer to the 20-goal mark. He and Dave Bolland are sitting on 18 each, Patrick Kane has 19.

Jonathan Toews can only sit and watch his goal total sit on 29 for the season — here’s hoping he returns in time to slam home 1 more. He’ll be chasing Patrick Sharp for the team lead if he does — Sharpie notched goals #29 and 30 in Columbus. And if you missed it, Marian Hossa’s goal against Columbus was his 900th point, tying him with former Blackhawk Tony Amonte for 95th place on the NHL’s list of all-time scoring leaders.

And on the blue line, following the win last night the Blackhawks’ record with newcomer Johnny Oduya in the lineup is now 8-1-1. Now, I was quick to poo-pooh the similar stats quoted for bruisers Daniel Carcillo and John Scott, so I’m not going to read too much into this. But if it continues, it will be hard to deny that Chicago’s newest defenseman has had a tremendous positive impact. I’m one of the advocates for keeping Oduya this off-season, but with the contracts the Blackhawks are already saddled with I can’t figure out how the team can possibly do it.

Administrative nonsense: Vancouver will be without the services of forward Andrew Ebbett and defenseman Keith Ballard; Chicago’s walking wounded include Toews, Steve Montador, and Sami Lepisto.

It’s a 7:00pm puck drop at the UC this evening. The game will be carried live coast-to-coast in Canada on TSN, as well as locally in Chicago on Comcast SportsNet. WGN AM-720 has the broadcast radio coverage; XM subscribers will find the game on channel 214; and Sirius Premiere customers can listen in on channel 213.

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