2010-11 Game Previews

As If We Didn’t Have Enough Snow Already: Double Dose of Avalanche

As Chicago finishes digging out from the fluffy white present Old Man Winter dumped on us over the weekend, the Blackhawks arrive in Denver for the first of a home-and-home series with the Colorado Avalanche culminating on Wednesday at the United Center. The first meeting between these two clubs was also in Denver for the season opener, when the Hawks fought back from a 3 – 1 deficit but still managed to come away with a 4 – 3 overtime loss.

A harbinger of the season to come, it would seem.

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Everybody Into The Pool: Blackhawks Swim With Sharks

Photo: CBS

We have yet to see the San Jose Sharks in the United Center, but the oddities of the NHL schedule have the Blackhawks climbing aboard a plane to visit the HP Pavilion on Saturday to take on Todd McLellan’s squad once more. Hope the boys brought more than just their Speedos.

Our last time swimming with the Sharks they smelled chum in the water, sunk their teeth into Marty Turco and wouldn’t let go, potting goals from Dany Heatley, Joe Pavelski, Jamal Mayers and Patrick Marleau. Antti Niemi had the last laugh against his former team, making 30 saves and coming away with a 5 – 2 win.

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Shooting Stars. And passing, and checking… Hawks/Stars at the U.C.

"You guys replaced me with John Fucking Scott?"

The Dallas Stars come into tonight’s game sitting second in the Western Conference, three points behind Detroit, and just suffered their first loss in 7 games on Monday. If we’re lucky enough not to get Kari Lehtonen in goal, we get Andrew Raycroft: 3 – 1 record, 1.65 GAA, .951 save percentage. Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson, James Neal, and Mike Ribiero are all comfortably north of 20 points in 26 games.

Dallas is burning as white hot as… as… hmm. What’s a good analogy?

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Light Them Up: Flames Visit Chicago

There are two reasons for the Blackhawks to kick it into gear tonight against the Calgary Flames. First, getting shut out by Vancouver two nights ago on home ice. Second, the embarrassing loss the Hawks suffered at the hands of the Flames two weeks ago by the score of 7 – 2. That absolutely must be avenged tonight.

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Back For More, Eh? Blackhawks Host Vancouver

Photo: AP

We tend to scoff at the Canucks in general, because we have Roberto Luongo’s number and we tend to knock them around like a piñata pretty much every time we see them, especially at the United Center. But we had better take the game more seriously this time: the Canucks come in fresh off a 7 – 2 win over Calgary. That game included a noteworthy hat-trick from Mason Raymond — one tally on the power play, one at even strength, and one shorty. Not often you see that.

So you can bet the Canucks will be feeling their oats and itching for a scrap when they hit Chicago tonight, especially after the bitch-slapping we gave them in GM Place the week before last. We showered the Vancouver net with 41 shots, chased Bobby Lu before the end of the 2nd, and walked out of there with a 7-1 victory. They will be looking for some payback. Expect Vancouver’s Tanner pain-in-the-Glass to be the latest fool to challenge — and get bludgeoned by — John Scott early on.

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Please, Enough Drama Already! Blues Visit Chicago

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Corey Crawford  of the Chicago Blackhawks warms up before their game against the San Jose Sharks at HP Pavilion on November 24, 2010 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It’s been an exciting few days for Blackhawks fans, as we wound down the Circus Trip with four wins, our star winger got injured at practice, and the phrase “goalie controversy” threatened to rear its ugly head again. But we’ll get to that in a minute. The task at hand are the boys in blue and gold, and game time is not even 12 hours away.

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When You Strike At A King: Blackhawks End Circus Trip in LA

Photo: Yahoo! Sports

Since the LA Kings visited the United Center on October 27th, the Kings went on a tear. Los Angeles won six in a row, followed by a six-game stretch in which they allowed the opposing teams to take 11 of the 12 possible points from them. The Blackhawks arrive in Los Angeles on the occasion of that 13th game, wondering if the Kings will break their streak of bad luck, or start a new one.

The teams that de-throned the Kings in that stretch were nothing to sneeze at, including Columbus and Montreal, both in the top four teams of their respective conferences. But the key to these wins appears, statistically at least, to be dependent on two players. With rare exception, the following maxim is true: if Jonathan Quick plays, LA wins. If Jonathan Bernier gets the start, LA loses. Chicago faced Bernier in their game at the United Center.

Tonight, the Blackhawks will face Jonathan Quick.

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Does This Make Us Cake-Eaters? Blackhawks at Anaheim

Photo: AP

The last time we saw the Anaheim Ducks it was less than two weeks ago at the United Center, and it was one of the games we want to remember from this year. Okay, Duncan Keith getting his pocket picked in the deep slot and allowing a goal less than a minute after we had taken the early lead wasn’t highlight-reel material. But the Blackhawks shelled Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller with 43 shots, allowing only 26 against, and Viktor Stalberg gave Corey Crawford the win with a late-OT goal.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a nice send-off victory for the Circus Trip, as we now pay a visit to the Honda Center in Anaheim to see those same Ducks again. The Hawks are fresh off a loss in San Jose, where a stop-and-start effort ended in a 5 – 2 defeat, the salt in that wound being the name “Niemi” pasted across the jersey of the opposing goaltender. Hopefully the ‘Hawks get angry and hand it to the Ducks for some payback…

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Minnows In This Tank: Blackhawks Visit Sharks

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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Westward, Ho! Blackhawks Visit Vancouver

Okay, well that was torture.

The Blackhawks followed up a dominant performance against the worst team in the Western Conference (a 5 – 0 win over Edmonton) with a middling effort against the second-worst team in the Western Conference (last night’s 7 – 2 loss to Calgary). The ‘Hawks are now back to .500, for the Circus trip, and for the season.

Tonight it’s the Vancouver Canucks, the team Chicago has bounced from the playoffs the last two years straight — turning Vancouver fans against their starting goaltender and team captain in the process. Now Roberto “WWWWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” Luongo is just a plain old goalie, the captain’s ‘C’ now residing on the jersey of Henrietta Sedin.

But the change hasn’t improved Luongo’s play any, as the Canucks fell to the Hawks 2 – 1 earlier this year at the United Center, each of the Blackhawks deking Luongo out of his panty liners in the shootout to seal the win. Luongo’s 2.69 GAA, .913 save percentage and 7-5-2 record suggest that this year is bound to disappoint Canucks fans once again.

Offensively, the Sedin twins have been the Canucks bread and butter this season, and sure enough they are tied for the team lead with 24 points each. Mikael Samuelson and Ryan Kessler are the next most prolific forwards at 12 points apiece, so you have a frame of reference for exactly how much the Canucks are relying on the Sedins’ output this year. Suffice to say, stop the Sedins and you stop the Canucks.

But the Blackhawks have been having a hard time stopping anyone this year, as the loss to Calgary illustrated rather embarrassingly. Brian Campbell was the only blueliner that ended the night in positive territory, but the carnage was spread pretty evenly among the remaining defensive corps. Marty Turco’s barely-above-.800 save percentage from the tilt is the worst performance since the Edmonton shellacking on October 29th, and the most goals-allowed by him this season.

Marty, this is NOT the time to turn into Marc Lamothe. Coach Joel Quenneville has decided not to take that chance, and is starting Corey Crawford between the pipes tonight.

The Blackhawks’ offensive stars were kept off the score sheet completely in the Calgary game, another bad sign. The fact that we are wondering which of our million-dollar men are going to earn their keep on any given night is an indication that this team is not firing on all cylinders, and in fact has a long way to go.

And so, we cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

9:00pm CST game time this evening. Comcast SportsNet for TV here in Chicago, and Canadian viewers will see this game as the second part of a Hockey Night In Canada double-header on CBC. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers will hear the game on channel 204.

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Back In The Saddle (Dome): ‘Hawks Hope To Extinguish Flames

What better way to start the annual Circus Trip than by obliterating the two crappiest teams in the Western Conference! The Blackhawks will get a chance to do just that when they take on the Flames at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome.

I know the venue was built for the Olympics, but who designed that ass-hammer anyhow? Just looking at that thing gives me hemorrhoids.

I would imagine the cold November snows in Alberta got a little warmer for the Blackhawks on Wednesday night, after they finally gave the Edmonton Oilers the treatment they should have gotten when they visited the United Center earlier this season. A hat-trick for Captain Serious, Patrick Sharp broke his scoreless drought, and Marty Turco earned his first shutout as a Blackhawk. And there was much rejoicing.

Now it’s on to Calgary to hopefully douse an equally dismal Flames squad, prevented from occupying the Western Conference basement by none other than the Oilers, minus center Olli Jokinen. Roly Poly Olli decided to bury the shaft of his stick in Wojtek Wolski’s neck, and the league told him to enjoy some press box popcorn for three games. So for the next week, the only place he won’t live up to expectations is in the bedroom.

Former Blackhawk draft pick Rene Bourque leads the offensive charge for the Flames, with 9 goals and 15 points in as many games. Long-time captain Jarome Iginla is choosing to lead from the rear, being owner of a team-worst -7 rating.

But the real news in Calgary is the arrival of two new Flames, one of whom is familiar to Blackhawks fans. Defensive linebacker Anton Babchuk brings his howitzer slap shot — and its pathetic accuracy — to a Calgary squad rather lacking in firepower. His -4 rating suggests that firepower is about all he’s good for: part of the reason Chicago sent him packing.

On the Blackhawks’ side, far be it from Coach Joel Quenneville to fix something that isn’t broken. Expect the same lines as were on the ice for the Edmonton game, and Marty Turco gets the start again. All is right with the world once more, as Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa lead the ‘Hawks in scoring (in that order), though we still have a little work to do in the +/- department. And Duncan Keith is even showing signs of not sucking.

I’m a big enough man to admit when I’m wrong, and in winger Viktor Stalberg it appears that I may have been off the mark. He’s my “player to watch” tonight, as he is gaining confidence (along with speed) each time I see him. Against Edmonton he had only 2 shots on goal and tallied no points, but his assignment to the Toews/Kane line works very well for his skill set. I expect we’ll start to see the 20-goal scorer we hoped we traded for very soon.

Game time is 8:30pm Chicago time: Canadian viewers can see the game on TSN, Chicago locals will find it on Comcast SportsNet as usual. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers turn the dial to channel 206.

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Third Time’s A Charm? Damn Well Better Be… Hawks Visit Oilers

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 14: Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin  of the Edmonton Oilers misses a shot by Ruslan Fedotenko of the New York Rangers for a goal during the third period of a hockey game at Madison Square Garden on November 14, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

Arright, now I’m fuckin’ PISSED.

I just looked at the Oilers’ schedule to date. I looked back to October 11th, nearly the entire regular season. In that span of time, the Oilers have lost nine games outright, and lost another 3 in overtime. They’ve lost four games to such bottom-feeders as Minnesota and Calgary.

They have won two games. BOTH AGAINST CHICAGO!

There is NO WAY we can lose three games to this festering sack of frog vomit in one year. It just can’t happen. If it does, I expect there to be some Seppuku at center ice after the game. That would be a disgrace no team should permit.

Speaking of disgrace, the Oilers are fresh off a colossal humiliation at the hands of the New York Rangers, to the tune of an 8 – 2 spanking. Nikolai Khabibulin was in net for all 8 of those goals: why he wasn’t pulled is beyond me. But the Rangers had no shortage of players eager to make him look like he had just failed a breathalyzer test. One can only hope that we see him between the pipes, and have similar luck.

The last time Khabby played the Blackhawks he was solid, making some genuinely remarkable saves on his way to stopping 25 shots. The fact that we only *took* 25 shots may have contributed to the fact that we lost that game 2 – 1. The prior game the Oilers needed little more than a cardboard cut-out in net, since the Hawks gave up 7 goals while allowing 41 shots, chasing Marty Turco after just one period. Our bad luck against these guys is nothing short of startling.

The rumblings in the Oiler-ogosphere are currently bemoaning the team’s defensive problems, and the latest grousing centers on their centers, specifically their abysmal performance at the face-off dot. So there’s two things the Hawks need to try to exploit when they arrive in the snow-laden northlands.

Back home, Blackhawks fans are enjoying the realization that the boys managed to scrape together three points out of a possible four during the last two games. We managed to hand out three points to Conference opponents in the process, but that’s immaterial. Just the fact that we put one in the ‘win’ column is reason to celebrate.

We’re also getting cautiously optimistic about the play of newcomers Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille. Stalberg put up his sixth goal of the season while getting the game-winner against Anaheim, and Jack Skille posted his first goal of the year — and his second — in the loss to Nashville. If both of these guys can put in consistent performances every night, they’ll find themselves getting 10 to 15 minutes a night.

Roster-wise, nothing of note for the Hawks. Troy Brouwer was absent from practice on Tuesday, but he will make the trip and is likely to play against Edmonton. If that’s the case, expect Coach Quenneville to field the exact same team and lines he did over the weekend. He’s not one to tinker with success, especially when the Hawks are teetering so close to the .500 mark.

For the Oilers, no doubt you saw the Ladislav Smid/Sean Avery sucker-punch incident from the Rangers game, the one that resulted in penalties for every skater on the ice, and even one who was NOT on the ice! The most severe penalty handed out was a 10-minute misconduct however, and despite the severity of the fracas the league issued no suspensions. Smid apparently suffered a head injury in that melee, and will sit out this tilt tonight. The Oilers have called up heavyweight defenseman Shawn Belle to replace him. Beyond that, we will be facing a full and healthy Oiler lineup Wednesday night.

Game time is 8:30pm: Comcast SportsNet for the TV broadcast; regular-old radio is WGN AM-720, as usual; XM subscribers flip to channel 205.

And for the love of crap, guys: start this road trip off right.

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Hoping It’s Not Wabbit Season: Chicago Hosts Anaheim

Photo: Hanna Barbera

Last night’s game was a dramatic improvement over what we’ve seen lately from the Blackhawks. Yes, they let two leads slip away. Yes, they lost in a shootout. Yes, they only mustered four shots on goal in the 3rd.

But the team showed up. Jack Skille broke the jinx, twice. Viktor Stalberg lit the lamp. Defensively we were *far* more competent, only three players ended the night in the minus column. The Hawks were lining guys up, and standing up for their teammates. This was a good effort, and one hopes they can bring their first-period intensity into tonight’s game against Anaheim.

The big news from Duckville is that starting goaltender Jonas Hiller took a shot in the mask at practice on Saturday which resulted in a cut over his eyebrow that required four sutures. His status for tonight’s game has not been formally announced as of this writing, however one expects him to be in civvies for tonight’s tilt. That means Curtis McElhinny will likely be between the pipes tonight.

Which is good news, because the Ducks bring with them a 6-game winning streak. Forwards Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan all have a minimum of 6 goals and 17 points each. They have strong power-play conversion, they’re getting decent goal support from the blueline, and their goaltending has been solid. This is going to be a difficult test for the Blackhawks, even with Schmedley McLosermuffin in goal.

Doubtful that there will be any lineup changes for the Blackhawks, though the latest trade rumor concerning Corey Crawford and Tomas Kopecky might throw a wrench in things. Depends if they pull the trigger before the puck drops or not. Or at all. If anything happens before game time we’ll let you know via Twitter — follow us using the link below.

6:00pm start at the UC. WGN has the TV broadcast, WGN AM-720 for broadcast radio, and channel 204 for XM subscribers.

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Picking The Carcass Clean: Blackhawks Hunted By Predators

Those of you reading this are probably dreading tonight’s game. My comment to my wife yesterday was, every day the Blackhawks don’t play is a day they don’t lose. That’s what it’s come to.

How bad is it? In our last 10 games we are 3-7 including 5 losses on home ice. The losses are close, four of the seven are by one goal. Patrick Sharp in his last six games has no goals, two assists, and rates a -7. Marian Hossa is a -3 in his last six games with no points, period. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have totaled no goals, five assists and are a combined -10 in their last four games.

To call this a slump is like calling Megan Fox “cute.”

But this goes beyond statistics. When this team took the ice last year, they were intimidating. There was a confidence and a determination about them that elicited fear in opponents, and prepared crowds in other arenas for the inevitable reality that their beloved skate-monkeys were about to be treated like toilet paper.

This year, I don’t think they could instill fear into the hearts of an opposing squad of pee-wee girls. Their passing is the biggest giveaway. Last year it was no-look, tape-to-tape at full stride from the opening minute. Now it’s hard to get them to hit an open man standing still.

They’re skittish, they’re tentative, they’re trying to do too much, they’re trying for highlight-reel goals, and it’s making them look foolish. I hate to say it, but this team more closely resembles the Blackhawks of 10 years ago than team one that hoisted the Stanley Cup.

They’ll get the next chance to redeem themselves and show us that they *can* bring the intensity tonight when they take the ice in Nashville. The last time they faced the Predators it was on home ice, as they gave rookie goalie Anders Lindback his first *ever* win in his first *ever* start by letting a third-period lead slip away with two late goals. This was to become a trend, as the last two games showed us.

The significant change to the lineup for the Hawks is that Dave Bolland will be back at center between Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane. Bolland was activated from IR on Friday after sitting out the last two weeks with an upper-body injury.  Bolland’s play prior to being placed on IR was arguably the worst of his career as a Blackhawk, so it’s unlikely that his return will spark anything more than uncomfortable sideways glances.

Nashville comes in at 6-5-3, having just broken a five-game losing losing streak by beating St. Louis in a shootout on Thursday. Lindback has actually been their more consistent goaltender this year, as starter Pekka Rinne has shown some chinks in his armor. No injuries of substance to the Predators, and they will come in eager to get the home-town crowd back on their side.

Game time is 7:00pm tonight. Comcast SportsNet for the TV broadcast, WGN AM-720 is the broadcast radio outlet, and XM subscribers look for the game on channel 238.

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Rising Beyond Mediocrity: Phoenix visits the UC Tonight

Photo: AP

The Blackhawks take on the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at the United Center. After Sunday night’s disheartening loss to the Edmonton Oilers, I hope the concession stands are going to offer Maalox.

There have been some positives in the Blackhawks’ play. We are 3rd in the league in power play conversions, something that was a serious problem for us at this time last year. And our goaltending, originally thought to be our weak spot this season, has proved solid.

But that’s the end of the good news. Our penalty killing is so-so, our defense isn’t the impermeable fortress of last year, our veterans aren’t leading, our youngsters aren’t following, and the results show it. Above all, while we are showing flashes of brilliance here and there, our biggest problem is consistency.

The Oilers were a better team than the Blackhawks for about 45 seconds on Sunday. It cost the Blackhawks the game. They talk about a 60-minute effort, and that’s why. The Hawks didn’t play a bad game: decent number of shots, reduced their number of shots allowed, killed four penalties out of five, and kept the game at a defensive stale-mate against a speedy Edmonton squad. But one power play goal and a complete mental let-down on the following shift, and the visitors take home two points.

The mental lapse following the Oilers’ goal is not an isolated incident. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Adam Jahns scoured the box scores and found that the Blackhawks have allowed a goal against on the shift immediately following a goal no fewer than *seven* times this season. This is the kind of thing that makes coaches pull a Rumplestiltskin, and I would imagine it is the primary focus of Coach Joel Quenneville’s attention right now.

That, and shuffling the lines — AGAIN. Tuesday’s practice saw Patrick Kane moved to left wing (?!?!?) on a line with Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland. This can’t be a good sign, since both the Hossa/Bolland and Hossa/Kane combinations have been tried — with zero success — before. I see it as a sign that Q is simply throwing darts at a lineup sheet and seeing which ones land where.

There is something to be said for the definition of insanity here: doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. When you shuffle a deck and expect to have it come up all aces, something’s wrong.

It may be time for some new cards. But we’ll address that another day.

The Phoenix Coyotes are a team without a city right now, as the ownership battle — and no-doubt relocation fight immediately to follow — has yet to be settled. They come into the United Center with more overtime/shootout losses than any team in the league. After regulation, they are a perfect 0-5. Their roster boasts plenty of names you’ll recognize, like Eric Belanger, Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Ed Jovanovski, Derek Morris, and Adrian Aucoin. But the whole, in this case, is far less than the sum of its parts.

This is another Edmonton, a team that we should beat handily. They sit second-to-last in the Conference, and goaltending has not been their strong point to date. However, as we saw on Sunday, the Blackhawks have had trouble with teams meeting this description. Let’s hope that they come out swinging and bury this one quickly.

Look for tweets from us about injuries, starting lineups, and scratches later today.

Game time is 7:30pm: TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers can look for the game on channel 208.

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Hey, you look familiar: Blackhawks visit some old friends in Atlanta

Fancy seeing you here. How’s everything going?

Most Chicagoans will remember Atlanta as “Chicago South” following the off-season roster-wide flea market that arose due to salary cap constraints. Atlanta worked trades to acquire forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, and Andrew Ladd, as well as defenseman Brent Sopel and prospect Akim Aliu. So the Blackhawks will see a lot of familiar faces staring back at them across the face-off circle.

So how are our former Stanley Cup winning heroes doing in A-Town? Quite well, as it turns out. Byfuglien had most of his success in a Blackhawks uniform on the wing, but the Thrashers are using him both in that role as well as on defense. The dual role seems to suit him: he leads the team with 12 points, and is second on the squad with 5 goals.

Ladd shares the most-points distinction, and is having what some NHL pundits have already called a “career year.” Leading the team with goals is second-year pro Evander Kane (no relation), who is on a pace to nearly triple his scoring totals from his rookie season. Also showing his teeth at pivot is long-time Maple Leafs disappointment Nik Antropov, who actually has the trophy for team’s biggest player at 6′ 6″, 245 lbs. When you have Byfuglien on your team, that’s really saying something.

The Thrashers have had their ups and downs. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec went temporarily tits-up during a stoppage of play in the season opener. One second he was standing there, a face-off about to occur at the other end of the ice; the next, BAM! Out like a light.

Pavelec was removed on a stretcher, kept for several days at the hospital, and doctors were unable to find any serious or potentially lethal cause for the momentary lapse of vertical stability. I guess that’s good news, but if they can’t find the cause, what’s to stop it from happening again?

Where this team is not performing well is defense. They hold second-to-last place in the league with 46 goals allowed in just 12 games, and the best +/- rating on the entire team is a +2. The aforementioned Antropov holds the basement in that category with a -9.

Chris Mason holds down the fort in net, though his 3.45 GAA is not what you’d call impressive. Let’s hope the Blackhawks take that opportunity to light the lamp in a humiliating fashion.

Because, in case you haven’t noticed, they are not doing so of late. Apart from Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, the highest individual goal total on the squad is 4 for the year. That’s Patrick Kane’s number; Jonathan Toews has 3; and the rest of the supporting cast is not contributing nearly as much as they should be.

Defensively things are more stable after Brian Campbell’s return, but still not excellent. Goaltending is starting to slip a bit, as Marty Turco may be starting to show signs of wear. The threshhold is 3 goals: when the opponent scores 3 or more, we lose. If they score 2 or fewer, we win. So be on the lookout for that.

Last game’s throw-up-your-hands-and-pray-for-a-miracle coaching decision was to put both Jordan Hendry and John Scott up on the wing, which (as anybody could have guessed) was a catastrophic failure of a magnitude not seen since the Alpo Suhonen era.

Look it up. You’ll get a chuckle.

So this morning the Blackhawks recalled rookie forward Jeremy Morin from Rockford. This, as you’ll recall, is the speedy winger who seemed to gel quite nicely with Patrick Kane during the pre-season, but was handed a Greyhound ticket due to salary cap issues. Morin will be making his NHL debut against the Thrashers: let’s hope it’s a memorable one, for the right reasons.

Game time is 6:00pm. WGN has the TV broadcast this time, and radio as well on AM-720. XM subscribers should look for channel 207.

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Tell The Truth And Shame The Devil: New Jersey visits the UC

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 15: Ilya Kovalchuk  of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center on October 15, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

So this is what $100 million looks like.

In case your attention was focused too acutely on getting tickets for the Lady GaGa “Monster” tour, there was an auction of sorts happening in the NHL this summer. Mega-star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who came over to the Devils in a blockbuster trade with Atlanta at the end of last season, became a free agent. And about five team’s general managers were clamoring over each other to be the first in line to hand over the cash.

So once the deal was done, it turned out the deal really wasn’t done, because Gary Bettman — Supreme Emperor of the NHL — decided he didn’t like it. So it was back to the auction block! When the dust finally settled, Kovalchuk wound up with a deal that will put $100 million in his pocket.

Not bad money, considering he boasts only 6 points and a pathetic -5 rating through 12 games.

Big contracts are par for the course in New Jersey, as the Devils have six players making $4 million per year or more, including names like Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, and Jason Arnott. In that way, their salary structure is a lot like the Blackhawks: a handful of superstars making mega-bucks, and then the rest of the team earning at or near the league minimum. Not surprisingly, both teams are off to a mediocre start.

The salary cap hit got a little lighter on Tuesday, however: doctors performing exploratory surgery on Devils’ forward Zach Parise found a torn meniscus and repaired it during the same session. Parise is expected to miss three months, and will be one less gun in New Jersey’s arsenal when they arrive at the United Center.

But the biggest surprise for the Devils this year has been the so-so goaltending of Martin Brodeur. One hopes in such situations that your backup can carry the load. But Johan Hedberg has had two starts so far this season, and has had to be relieved in both of them. Quite the pickle to be in: your starter slumping, and your backup about as effective as a sixth-grade girl. Needless to say that, despite the coach and GM repeatedly praising the Hall of Fame goalie, the winds of change may be blowing if Brodeur can’t start delivering.

Thankfully, goaltending has yet to be a serious issue with the Blackhawks. But the rest of the team continues to be riddled with injuries, and their replacements have performed (*ahem*) underwhelmingly, to be charitable. The good news is, Brian Campbell made his season debut against the Rangers on Monday, and despite being a little rusty and a step slow, looks to be well on his way to regaining his form. The bad news is, Marian Hossa is still out, and is talking about a return to the lineup next week. Currently he is participating in practice with a “no-contact” designation.

Similarly Dave Bolland has been placed on injured reserve, though his performance so far this season has been so pathetic I doubt anyone would care, or for that matter, notice.

On Tuesday the Blackhawks made the unusual move of sending both Ben Smith and Ryan Potulny back to the AHL affiliate IceHogs. This may simply be a pre-cursor to recalling a different forward for Wednesday’s game, since even with John Scott skating at a wing position, it leaves the team short by one forward. We’ll see what today brings.

The Hawks’ defense looked far more stable against New York than any game to date. Campbell’s return eased the burden on stalwart blueliners Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, though Keith still found himself on the ice for over 27 minutes. The biggest bonus, however, was minimizing the ice time for the third defensive pairing, which has been pathetic for the Blackhawks thus far, no matter who it was comprised of.

Look for announcements about call-ups and the starting goaltender following today’s morning skate. Follow us on Twitter to get the latest as it happens.

Game time is 7:30: TV coverage on Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM satellite radio subscribers should turn to channel 208.

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Home On The Range(rs): Blackhawks Take Manhattan

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 29: Henrik Lundqvist  of the New York Rangers sits on the ice after allowing Erik Cole, of the Carolina Hurricanes, to score the game-winning goal in the third period on October 29, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. The Hurricanes defeated the Rangers 4- 3. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers have been the blogosphere’s punching bag for more than a decade now, particularly as the retirement home for over-the-hill veterans to be paid ludicrous sums of money. That strategy resulted in a lengthy streak of teams that missed the playoffs, despite having boasted such luminaries as Leech, Lafontaine, Kovalev, Nedved, Lindros, Barnaby, Bure, Holik, Gretzky, and Messier.

The Hall Of Fame names aren’t as prevalent anymore, though the name Jagr graced the roster as recently as two seasons ago. But that year, the Rangers did make the playoffs. Though the same could not be said for last year. The Rangers have nearly half of their salary cap dollars tied up in just four players, and they missed the playoffs in 2009-10. Despite the reduction in marquee names, the results are the same.

Backstopping the effort is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist boasting an impressive .921 save percentage, though that comes with a 2.76 GAA because of an average of 34 shots against per game. In front of him is a defensive corps comprised of largely competent yet wholly unimpressive individuals, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi anchoring the platoon.

Offense is spread surprisingly evenly, with 11 players above the 4-point mark after 10 games, and only four players off the scoresheets entirely (and three of those having played in only one or two games). Tough guys Brandon Prust and Sean Avery provide the muscle: and as luck would have it, Marian Gaborik, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal are all out of the Rangers lineup with injuries.

The Rangers bring a 5-4-1 record back into Madison Square Garden for this tilt against the Blackhawks. They are brimming with confidence after a shutout against the Maple Leafs two nights ago, so we can expect them to put up quite a struggle. A win tonight moves them up to 6th place in the Eastern Conference — good enough to make the playoffs.

For the Blackhawks’ part, it’s another patchwork lineup again tonight, though one of the pieces we’ve been missing is reportedly back where it belongs.

Blackhawks’ announcer Ed Olczyk went on NHL Live on the NHL Network today, and confirmed that Blackhawks’ defenseman Brian Campbell will make his season debut tonight. Campbell’s return will take a huge load off of overworked blueliners Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and should help the +/- stats of Niklas Hjalmarsson — not to mention reduce the amount of playing time for pitiful fill-in Jassen Cullimore. Soupy suffered a sprained MCL in a pre-season game October 1, and his absence has been the hole most desperately in need of filling.

But not the only hole. Winger Marian Hossa is still out, as is underperforming center Dave Bolland. Off-season league-minimum acquisition Ryan Potulny and what-the-@$%$#-is-this-guy-doing-here forward Ben Smith were recently called up from Rockford to provide warm bodies to pretend to fill those voids. The Hawks’ win over Minnesota on Saturday began the process of healing from a humiliating defeat at the hands of the dead-last Edmonton Oilers the previous night. With luck that trend will continue this evening.

Administratively speaking, Bryan Bickell and Nick Boynton are the healthy scratches, no official word on who is starting in net, but there is little reason not to suspect Marty Turco will be in goal.

Game starts at 6:00pm. The NHL Network has national coverage for tonight’s game, though Chicago locals can get coverage on Comcast SportsNet. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers will find the game on channel 204.

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Edmonton Remodeled the Basement, But It Still Stinks

Photo: thestar.com

Following the dead-last finish by the Edmonton Oilers last season, the first thing to do was boot Pat Quinn out of his day-to-day role, and up to middle management where he could do less damage. Tom Renney was brought in to steer the team to a better finish than last year. That hurdle could be cleared by a paraplegic tortoise.

Then the team was re-made via the draft, some trades, and the promotion of some youngsters from the minor leagues, Juniors, and the European ranks. Veterans Ethan Moreau, Mike Comrie, Patrick O’Sullivan, Ryan Stone, Chris Minard, Robert Nilsson, Marc Pouliot and Riley Nash were all given early release for good behavior, so as to clear space for the newest victims.

The Oilers brought in some experience in the form of former Blackhawks Colin Fraser and Jim Vandermeer, but mostly young talent — first among them (quite literally) being Taylor Hall, highly-coveted superstar forward and number one overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. Edmontonians hailed the super-scoring wunderkind as the next coming of Wayne Gretzky. They would soon be disappointed. Through 8 games, Hall is a minus-4 with only 3 points.

Joining Hall in the category of those most likely to have their skates filled with shaving cream were Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, both of whom had the benefit of lower expectations given the blazing hot spotlight being shined on their teammate. So far they have both performed better than Taylor Hall, but it’s still early.

Goaltending questions also plagued the Oilers in the off-season, as former-Blackhawk netminder and now Edmonton mainstay goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin came dangerously close to starting the 2010-11 season in, umm… jail! Found guilty on DUI charges (twice the legal blood-alcohol limit while driving at nearly twice the speed limit) in Arizona, Khabibulin received a fine and a 30-day jail sentence. However, his legal team is appealing, and they managed to convince the judge to let him stay free on bail while the appeal is in progress.

This debacle coming so close to training camp, the Oilers were forced to sign veteran netminder Martin Gerber, who was promptly placed on waivers once Khabibulin weaseled his way out of a stint in the pokey. Khabby is backed up by Jeff Delauriers who has not seen any action to date.

So have the improvements helped? Will Edmonton be able to climb out of the basement? Not so far. Edmonton is (you guessed it) dead last in the Western Conference with a 2-4-2 record, giving up an average of 3.5 goals on 33 shots against per game. The much-hoped-for offense hasn’t materialized as yet either: Defenseman Ryan Whitney is the only player with more than 5 points.

So the Blackhawks face a team with little offense, shoddy defense and porous goaltending, that is also playing the second half of back-to-back games after losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a shootout last night. Looks like we have a recipe for an overwhelming Blackhawks victory this evening.

This is all good news, because if ever you wanted to play the worst team in the league, it is when you just lost one of your leading scorers to injury. Already suffering through the lengthy absence of defenseman Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks announced on Thursday that Marian Hossa will be out for the next two weeks with an upper-body injury. Right wing Ben Smith has been recalled from Rockford, and will be in the lineup tonight against the Oilers.

Wait a second. Ben Smith? BEN SMITH? Now we know that Jeremy Morin is not ready to return from his injury yet, so he’s out. But you still have Igor Makarov, Brandon Pirri, and Kyle Beach to choose from. Rob Klinkhammer, as un-exciting as he may be, is also an option. Yet they recall Ben Friggin’ Smith?

I swear, this guy has pictures of Stan Bowman doing the watusi with somebody’s niece. That’s the only way Ben Smith gets the call over these other forwards.

At any rate, the jumbled lines from Wednesday night’s victory over Los Angeles will be jumbled again, which won’t hurt much, since scoring output was no better than when the usual suspects were in their usual places. So expect Coach Joel Quenneville to be playing his 60-minute game of musical wingers.

Defense should be unchanged, though it’s a toss-up as to whom between John Scott and Jordan Hendry will be enjoying press box popcorn for the tilt. Since this is the first game of a Blackhawks’ back-to-back, I expect Corey Crawford to start against Edmonton. Give him the weaker of the two starts to pad his stats a bit.

Game time is 7:30: TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM channel 208.

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Kings Visit Chicago: Pardon us while we kick your Majesty’s arse

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Wayne Simmonds  of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates after scoring a second period goal against the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on October 21, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Usually I start these previews by taking a look at our opponent for the night. But there has actually been some turbulence in BlackhawkLand, so it’s worth exploring that first and getting to the Kings in a few minutes.

As you know, Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville is not shy about moving players around the lineup, even in the middle of games. Well, Tuesday at practice he apparently had just drawn names out of a hat, because exactly *nobody* could have predicted what combinations were on display. Observe and be confused:

Line 1: Patrick Sharp / Jonathan Toews / Jack Skille

Sharp back on the wing, where he’s most productive; Jonathan Toews at center, no surprise there; and look who’s earned himself a chance to play with the big boys! Bet he was out ordering the biggest hunk of meat in the joint at Gibson’s last night.

Line 2: Troy Brouwer / Tomas Kopecky / Marian Hossa

Kopecky at center, a position he played while with the Red Wings (*spitting noise*), but the Hawks have yet to try him at this position for anything more than an in-game stint. We have seen how well he seems to work with Marian Hossa, so that seems to make sense. Brouwer will provide some defensive capabilities and a little grit.

Now things get weird.

Line 3: Viktor Stalberg / Dave Bolland / Patrick Kane

The Slump Line. Bolland has been downright depressing, Kane’s hangover seems to have lasted longer than expected, and Stalberg has shown fleeting bursts of exceptional play amid long stretches of demonstrative mediocrity. Two speedy wingers might be a good combination, as we saw with Kane and Jeremy Morin during the pre-season. But merely the fact that Kane is relegated to the third line is a message in itself: pick it up, kid. Those goals don’t score themselves.

Line 4: Bryan Bickell / Jake Dowell / Fernando Pisani

Two fourth line regulars and, in my opinion, one headed for the scrap heap. Pisani was as long a shot as Ryan Potulny, who has already rode the Greyhound out to Rockford. Pisani has been all but invisible so far this season, and while he wasn’t expected to be anything but a role player, the role he’s played so far is “Dead Weight #3.”

All of this is an attempt to get the once-potent Blackhawks offense to kick it into gear. We make a big deal out of this every time Coach Q tries new line combinations in practice. The Twitterscape and Blogosphere nearly had an aneurysm when the initial reports came out of practice. But just watch: after all of this hullaballoo, QStache will have Toews centering Kane and Brouwer, and Sharp between Hossa and Kopecky by midway through the second period.

The Blackhawks got even better news on the Brian Campbell beat: he may be back in the lineup in under a week, making my two-to-three weeks prediction from yesterday look rather foolish. But even more foolish would be bringing Campbell back too early, only to have him suffer a season-ending injury to the same MCL. I hope these doctors know what they’re doing, and don’t screw us harder by bringing him back too soon.

That leaves the defensive pairings just where they were, with John Scott and Jordan Hendry drawing straws to see who sits this one out. Later today we’ll find out who gets the start in net: bank on it being Marty Turco, but follow us on Twitter at @blackhawksup and you’ll know as soon as it’s announced. Come on, you know you want to…

The Hawks will meet up with a Kings team that is off to a very strong start. 6-2 with 12 points, good for second place in the NHL. Anze Kopitar leads the charge for the Kings’ offense, though they are spreading the wealth rather wide: ten players have one or more tallies in only eight games. On the back end, netminder Jonathan Quick boasts a 1.95 GAA with only one loss to speak of. Yikes. The only good news is, defensive wunderkind Drew Doughty will not be in the lineup tonight, having had a setback in his recovery from what is being called an “apparent” concussion.

I’ve had a concussion, and it’s pretty “apparent” when you have one. If you can’t remember getting hit, you have a concussion. Don’t know why they’re beating around the bush.

The off-season was an average one for the Kings. After losing out on the Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes, they went about building their team up with mere mortals. Sean O’Donnell and Fredrik  Modin were among those allowed to walk; long-time Leafs underachiever Alex Ponikarovsky came over from the Penguins, and Canucks’ cast-off Willie Mitchell was brought in to bolster the blue line.

Suffice to say that the LA Kings are rolling, and it’s going to be hard to stop them, especially with our deficient defense and sporadic offense. Game time 7:30pm, TV is Comcast SportsNet; broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers will hear the game on channel 208.

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Some Gotta Win, Some Gotta Lose…

Photo: Getty Images

Since Monday, players on the St. Louis Blues have been doing their usual off-day routine: daily practice, dry-land training, watching last week’s episode of “Glee” over and over and over, and cursing their agent for landing them on  such a suck-bag team.

What they haven’t done since Monday is play a game. That means they are going to be well-rested, fired up in front of the home-town crowd, and looking for revenge after blowing a 2-0 lead with 6 minutes to go in the third and falling to the Blackhawks 3-2 in OT. Their wrists will be a little sore from… well, they’ve had the whole week off, you figure it out.

No changes in the lineup for St. Louis, as Cam Janssen is still not ready to return from the concussion he suffered while masturbating running into his own teammate during a game October 9th. Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin will likely split the starts on the Blues Friday/Saturday back-to-back games, but word is we will be facing Halak on Friday.

The Blues hope to win games on defense and goaltending this year, but that plan is already showing its weaknesses. They slid to a 2-1-2 record following Monday’s OT loss to the Blackhawks, and they are going to have to pick up the scoring if they expect to win anything. 14 goals in 5 games is not a recipe for a winning team.

Despite the history between these clubs, there wasn’t much to report in the penalties department from the last outing. A Bryan Bickell/David Backes rematch is possible, but judging from the way the teams played earlier this week, I’m not expecting the gloves to be dropped.

On the Blackhawks’ side, Coach Q seems to have Jordan Hendry, Jack Skille and Viktor Stalberg’s names in a hat and is drawing one after each practice to see who sits. We’ll find out after the morning skate who today’s victim is, the safe money is on Hendry.

One wonders why it won’t be John Scott, who may as well be painted day-glo orange and plopped down on the blue line for guys to skate around. Watching him out there is like watching somebody try to eat linguine with a spork. He simply doesn’t have the tools for the job.

It’s been hard not to notice the production from the “energy line” wingers Skille and Stalberg. With Stalberg displaying his sniper capabilities by flicking one past a stunned Roberto Luongo for the Blackhawks’ only regulation-time goal on Wednesday, we may see those two grow into bigger roles with the team as the season continues.

We are still waiting for the Blackhawks who aren’t named “Hossa” or “Sharp” to start scoring like they are capable of doing. Conditioning continues to be a problem with the Blackhawks, as the OT period against the Blues on Monday illustrated frighteningly. The Hawks were badly out-skated and allowed 7 shots in under 4 minutes of play before Patrick Sharp flipped home the game winner. Shots against was a factor again against Vancouver, with the Hawks giving up 29 in regulation and another 8 in the overtime period. Thank goodness Marty Turco is starting to look very solid between the pipes — but relying on him will come back to bite us, mark my words.

In Brian Campbell news, the injured defenseman is reported to be on target in his recovery from a sprained MCL suffered during pre-season, and should start skating again soon. Look for doctors to clear him to lace ‘em up next week.

Follow us on Twitter at @blackhawksup and you’ll get the latest on healthy scratches and starting goaltenders once they’re announced. Also check back here for post-game wrap-ups and our exclusive “Boxing” feature tomorrow morning.

Puck drops at 7:00, and it’s dropping from a rather sexy hand at Scottrade Center tonight: IRL hottie Danica Patrick will be on hand to help the players pitch some tents. I gotta say, as a race car driver, she’s a great bikini model.

TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers can find the game on channel 207.

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Thank You Sir May I Have Another: Blackhawks vs. Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks are not off to the best start in 2010-11. Their most promising game came Sunday in a 5-1 win over Carolina, and with all the this-is-our-year talk among Canucks fans this fall, you could almost hear them breathe a sigh of relief after that outing. But they followed it up with a 6-2 beat-down at the hands of the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. Suckers…

Speaking of the Minnesota game, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time with another re-hashing of the fan-shoving incident. Rick Rypien is about to become the poster child for You Don’t Fuck With Colin Campbell, so we have one less idiot with an orca on his sweater to worry about this evening.

For those of you who need a refresher on the Canucks, they’re the team that gives us fits every year until we figure out that their goaltender is a headcase who falls apart after he lets in the third goal. Once that happens, the game turns into a shooting gallery.

I actually read an article that claimed Roberto Luongo was the Blackhawks’ “nemesis.” Holy crap: do you WATCH hockey? We made that pansy bitch cry. I got your nemesis right here, chump.

Mr. Luongo and his 3.38 GAA/.888 SVG arrive at the United Center for the first of four shellackings before we bounce them out of the playoffs for the third straight year. He has had the captain’s ‘C’ ripped publicly from his chest, and he brings with him Danielle and Henrietta Sedin, who between them have 18 points so far this year. The rest of the team combined has 24. Explains their 2-3-1 record, doesn’t it?

Some faces have departed since we last saw the Canucks in the playoffs: forwards Pavol Demitra, Kyle Wellwood, and Ryan Johnson; blueliners Willie Mitchell and Brad Lukowich; and backup goaltender Andrew Raycroft are all out the door. Forward Raffi Torres and Manny Malhotra, as well as defensemen Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard are new to the lineup. All represent significant upgrades over their departed colleagues.

But the combination hasn’t really gelled so far. The fact that the Sedins are so far ahead of their teammates in scoring indicates that there is much tinkering left to be done. The Canucks’ rear guard has been riddled with injuries early in the season, so we can expect to see guys doing stupid stuff that allows Hawks forwards to squeeze out odd-man rushes and breakaways. Plays right into our hands.

Speaking of the Blackhawks, few changes in the lineup tonight since we’re on such a roll: Jordan Hendry is the likely scratch, Viktor Stalberg is back in, and John Scott shifts back to D. Marty Turco is starting in net, which makes sense: expect Corey Crawford to start one of our back-to-back games on Friday & Saturday.

Despite the outcome against St. Louis on Monday, few would argue that the Hawks didn’t play like crap. Additionally with 13 of the team’s 23 goals thus far coming from Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa, the rest of the lineup had better kick it into gear. Last-minute heroics and between-the-legs acrobatics works against lousy teams; good teams will kick us around like nerf footballs.

The Blackhawks’ defense is still a shambles, as evidenced by the fact that they have let in more goals than all but two teams in the league so far this season. That can’t continue, and we can’t continue to allow nearly 34 shots against per game either. Those two things go hand-in-hand, fellas. In case you’d forgotten.

The good news is, there’s plenty of room for improvement, and we’re leading our division already. This should be a fun one tonight, hard-fought and fast. Let’s hope we come out on the right end of it when the bullhorn sounds.

Odd start time of 8pm tonight, one has to assume that’s to accommodate the Canadian broadcasters. Locally it will be seen on Comcast SportsNet, catch it on broadcast radio WGN AM-720, and XM channel 206.

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Monday Evening Blues: St. Louis Visits Sweet Home Chicago

Photo: Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT

The Blackhawks bookend this week with a home-and-home series starting tonight at the United Center against the St. Louis Blues, who aren’t looking too bad so far this young season. Boasting a 2-1-1 record with wins over Philly and Anaheim, the Blues’ new goaltender Jaroslav Halak has backstopped them solidly with a 2.00 GAA and .909 save percentage. The Blues were counting on that, and so far Halak has delivered.

So far offense has been sparse, with the Blues scoring more than 3 goals only once so far this season. All but one game has been a one-goal margin, and two of their tilts have gone to OT. So the Blues aren’t blowing anybody out of the water so far, and since their marquee player had only 24 goals last season and boasts a NHL-career minus-14 rating, you can bet they’re not going to.

It appears from the box scores on their early outings, the Blues are trying to come out at break-neck speed, score quickly, and ride their early lead to a win. This didn’t work on Saturday against Dallas, and now that the Hawks are once again showing the kind of persistence that won them Lord Stanley’s Cup, it shouldn’t work in Chicago either. Blues dirtbag Cam Janssen is still out with a concussion, apart from that the Blues are healthy and ready to be beaten like the dogs that they are.

On the Blackhawks’ end, fans were puzzled and disappointed to hear the club announce that rookie defenseman Nick Leddy was sent down to the AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs. The kid looked dazed and confused his first two regular-season NHL games, but had steadily improved since then and was showing promise. However this is likely a move designed to get him 20-25 minutes of ice time per game, and groom him for the future. I would not be surprised to see him called up — permanently — after the trade deadline to stick with the Blackhawks through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. We’ll keep the name on your locker, Nick.

With Niklas Hjalmarsson returning from suspension this past Saturday, that leaves him, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, as our top-three on the blueline. The bottom-four are now (everybody take a deep breath, this is going to hurt a bit) Nick Boynton, John Scott, Jordan Hendry, and Jassen Cullimore. It appears, with Leddy’s re-assignment, that we are going to have to endure this combination until Brian Campbell returns from his injury. Maalox Extra Strength can be found in the handy 16-oz. size at your local Walgreen’s store.

The good news is that the Blackhawks’ offense is kicking it into gear. The plus/minus numbers are still a little dodgy, but we’re starting to see the kinds of things that made Blackhawks hockey exciting last year. Tic-tac-toe passing. Power-play conversions. Short-handed goals. Patrick Sharp snapping in rebounds. Marian Hossa toying with goaltenders and making them cry. And most importantly, sticking with games until the final horn sounds. Our two wins over Buffalo were come-from-behind victories, and that’s the best news of all.

Marty Turco gets the start, and during his last two outings he has stopped all but 5 of 73 shots against. That’s a .931 save percentage. Let’s hope that keeps up. Coach Q was tight-lipped after practice today about lineup specifics, but spies peering over the dasher boards suggest that Jack Skille will be back in the lineup, John Scott will stay up on the wing, and Viktor Stalberg will get a rest.

Puck drops at 7:30, TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio AM-720 WGN. XM subscribers can find the game on channel 208. Sirius, aaaah find it yourself.

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No Excuses: Blackhawks vs. Not-The-Buckeyes

Photo: ESPN.com

Columbus, Ohio residents were shocked to learn in early October that they still had an NHL hockey team! Paying so much attention to the still-undefeated and #1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes football team, residents began calling the newspapers and TV outlets wondering who the funny-looking guys were wearing the skates and red-white-and-blue uniforms.

It didn’t help matters that the BJ’s spent late September and early October eating Lutfisk, cabbage, and pickled lingenberries while playing two regular-season games against the Sharks in Stockholm, Sweden. How could anybody pay attention to them, the team wasn’t even in town!

Alas, with so much hullaballoo over OSU and their pigskin performance, not to mention the disappointing season the Blue Jackets had in 2009-10, both media coverage and ticket sales are down noticeably for the Columbus franchise. Add to that a goalie coming off a sophomore slump and a leading-scorer whose effectiveness is waning, and you have the recipe for a, “Who Jackets?” reaction from central Ohio residents.

The just-completed off-season brought one substantial change, and little else. Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel was brought in as a permanent replacement for long-departed Ken Hitchcock, bringing with him a puck-possession style system that the team is having difficulty adapting to.

Apart from that the only brand-name addition to the roster is former Blackhawk and departed Edmonton captain Ethan Moreau who they snatched up on waivers. He is expected to bring some energy back to the team and provide leadership and confidence in what is reported to be a dour locker room scene.

KHL-banished prospect Nikita Filatov has returned to the team after personality clashes last season with Hitchcock and some teammates — many of whom are still on the squad. So while the young sniper has the potential to provide steady and crowd-pleasing offense, there is also the possibility that his attitude presents problems for the team. Only time will tell.

The Jackets have young Steve Mason between the pipes, who followed up a Calder-trophy-winning 33-win/10-shutout season in 2008-09 with a middling performance last year. Flimsy defense in front of him didn’t help the situation, and Mason will have to show his coach that he’s capable of handling the load. The other thing is, even the faithful fans are souring on Mason. If he can’t repeat his spectacular rookie season, or at least show that it’s possible, the coaching staff may lose patience as well and give him the hook.

Though it’s hard to blame Mason exclusively. Word from Columbus is that the Jackets’ defensive corps is big but slow, and they are having trouble adapting to the puck-possession system implemented by Arniel. If the blueliners can’t get with the program, Mason will have his hands full. If he lets in 3 goals on 60 shots, that’s a .950 save percentage. Not Mason’s fault if they lose that one 3-2.

The other factor that that has plagued Columbus is penalties. Their slow defensemen have been compensating with a lot of clutch-and-grab, and the Jackets have already racked up an above-average number of penalties in the early part of this year. Their penalty killing has gotten a workout, and this will likely prove to be a factor as games wear on and benches get shortened.

Let’s hope the speedy Blackhawks forwards take advantage of that, and we should expect to see all guns blazing as the Hawks come into the attacking zone. All guns except one, that is: Patrick Kane didn’t make the trip to Columbus, having sat out practice on Thursday with an illness.

In an unusual move, defenseman Jassen Cullimore got on the plane out of Rockford this morning and will be on the bench tonight. The groans from Blackhawks fans who know of Cullimore’s barely-AHL-caliber play could be heard all the way in Columbus. Goodness knows how Coach Q is going to shuffle the cards tonight — perhaps moving blueliners Jordan Hendry or John Scott up to a wing? — but this twist will make for an interesting game.

Kane’s absence is icing on the cake to a couple of weeks chock full of roster challenges. The Hawks are still without Niklas Hjalmarsson (suspension) and Brian Campbell (injury) on the back end. Expect Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to test the limits of their endurance once more, as the supporting cast behind them is still struggling to, you know, play defense. Marty Turco gets the start tonight amid unconfirmed reports that Coach QStache is growing weary of Turco’s bone-headed out-of-the-crease activities.

But regardless of who is in, who is out, who’s in net, who’s on D, and who’s playing 59 minutes per game, there are no excuses tonight. There are few scenarios where the Blackhawks can’t kick the holy living crap out of Columbus. Most pundits are putting the Blow Jerkers either last or next-to-last in the Conference this year. We should take every game from them, including this one. So I want to see nothing but elbows and assholes tonight, fellas: we need one in the ‘Wins’ column, and I’m not taking no for an answer.

Puck drops at 6pm Chicago time, TV is Comcast SportsNet, WGN AM-720 for broadcast radio, XM channel 204, and you Sirius “Best of XM” subscribers look for channel 208.

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Cats Without Fangs: Injury-Riddled Predators Visit Chicago

Photo: The Tennessean

Anders Lindback and Mark Dekanich. Ever heard of them? Me neither. But one of them will be between the pipes for their first NHL start when the injury-depleted Nashville Predators arrive at the United Center for the game against the Blackhawks.

During Saturday’s win over the Anaheim Ducks, usually-impenetrable starting goaltender Pekka Rinne suffered an undisclosed lower-body injury and is out for, well, they’re not saying.

And seriously, is this “undisclosed injury” crap ever going to end? Tell the truth: the guy took a puck in the man-jigglies.

Lindback, a gangly 22-year-old Swede at 6’ 6” tall, is the likely choice to get the start — his first in North America — after coming in to relieve Rinne on Saturday night. He stopped all seven shots in 17 minutes of play during that game. But that’s 17 minutes more than Dekanich has ever played in the bigs, so the Predators had better hope Lindback is up to the task. Not an enviable position to be in when your star goalie is out.

In fact, the Preds will be without many of their effective weapons for this tilt with their Central Division rivals, as Martin Erat, Jamie Lundmark and Sergei Kostitsyn are all out of the lineup with various (wait for it…) undisclosed injuries. In fact, the entire thing is so secretive, I’ve heard that all of the players will wear number double-zero with no names on their jerseys so that the Hawks don’t even know who is on the ice!

Incognito or not, we can expect to see former Blackhawks J.P. DuMont and Speedy Stevie Sullivan, and we can also expect Barry Trotz’s minions to play a style of hockey that could put a crack-addicted gerbil to sleep. Pinch and press, dump and loiter, four-men across at their own blue line. It’s like a concert where the band just plays “Wooly Bully” over and over endlessly.

This will be just the second game of the year for Nashville, so we have little to go on past their 4-1 win over league-scourge Anaheim on Saturday. With so many guns absent from the arsenal, it’s anybody’s guess how the Preds will respond. Look for newly-minted captain Shea Weber to try to rally the troops against the defending champs.

And speaking of the Blackhawks, getting a win under their belt was no-doubt a confidence builder. And in a move that came as a surprise to everyone, late Wednesday afternoon Coach Q named Monday’s winning goaltender Corey Crawford for tonight’s start. No suggestion that Marty Turco was either injured or falling out of favor: the Hawks schedule has them in 4 games over the next 6 days, and the Coach is merely putting his ducks in a row to get the right ‘tender up against the right opponent.

The forward corps are looking reasonably good. Patrick Sharp returned on Monday after missing the Detroit (*spitting noise*) game with — you guessed it — an undisclosed injury, and he was a factor in the win over the Sabres. Newcomers Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille are working their butts off; Patrick Kane is starting to catch fire; and Marian Hossa is already as hot as a two-dollar pistol with five points in three games.

Some of our expectations of our veterans haven’t been met, in particular Dave Bolland whose face-off percentage looks like he’s using a badminton racquet instead of a hockey stick. Here’s hoping that turns around quickly.

News on defense is not so good. Already reeling from the absence of the injured Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson has earned a two-game suspension from the league for his hit on Jason Pominville during Monday’s game. That leaves Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both already logging 28+ minutes per game, to hold down the fort with an unstable compliment of rookies and lesser-talented veterans behind them.

Never mind the fact that both Dunc and Seabs have made an uncharacteristically large number of bone-head plays themselves so far this young season. All it took was one injury and one ill-conceived hit, and suddenly our best-in-the-league defense looks barely capable of stopping a beach ball. Tonight will be a big test of who can (and does) step up.

Rallying from two goals down in the Sabres victory says a lot about this team. One of the best traits of the Stanley Cup Championship lineup was that they *never* gave up on a game. I’m hopeful that what we saw on Monday was the beginning of that attitude returning to the Hawks’ locker room.

Puck drops at 7:30 at the United Center, TV is Comcast SportsNet, broadcast radio WGN AM-720, XM channel 208, Sirius “Best of XM” subscribers can find the game on channel 217.

Check back here for the wrap-up and commentary Thursday morning.