LIVE: Sharp's 4 assists have Hawks in front 6-3

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LIVE: Sharp's 4 assists have Hawks in front 6-3

Monday, March 14, 2011
Posted: 10:20 a.m.
Associated Press
Antti Niemi has been a big reason why the San Jose Sharks have won all three meetings with the Chicago Blackhawks this season.

Niemi hopes to torment his former team once again Monday night when the Sharks look for a fifth straight road win while the Blackhawks try to avoid their first four-game skid in two seasons.

A hero in leading Chicago (37-24-8) to the Stanley Cup a year ago, Niemi has gone 17-3-3 with a 1.95 goals-against average while starting the Sharks' last 24 games. The GAA is the best of any goalie with at least 16 starts in that span.

Niemi is 3-0-0 with a 1.96 GAA in three starts against the Blackhawks. He made 26 saves in his return to the United Center in a 5-3 victory Dec. 30 in the last meeting between these teams.

The goalie has dropped shootouts in the last two games for San Jose (39-22-8), which fell 3-2 to the Rangers on Saturday. The Sharks remain ahead of the pack in the tightly bunched Pacific Division as they begin a two-game trip that ends Tuesday in Dallas.

"We're gonna have a couple tough games, Chicago and Dallas," coach Todd McLellan said. "We leave this one behind and let's get going forward."

Eight of the Sharks' last nine games have been decided by one goal. They also lost 5-4 to Vancouver on Thursday.

"We're at the point of the season now where a point isn't good enough," defenseman Dan Boyle said Saturday. "We had our chances, for sure. You never know if that point could cost us in the end. Hopefully it doesn't."

Boyle had two assists against the Rangers as he returned after missing six games with an upper-body injury.

San Jose winger Ben Eager will make his first return to the United Center since he was traded by Chicago to Atlanta in the offseason. Eager, who spent his previous two-plus seasons with the Blackhawks, was acquired by the Sharks on Jan. 18.

His former team is mired in a 0-1-2 stretch after Sunday's 4-3 overtime loss at Washington. The Blackhawks, who last lost four straight during a five-game skid March 13-20, 2009, were outshot 42-30.

"We'll take the point," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We weren't very good today. We were very generous in all the goals that we gave them and could've done a better job defending in those situations."

Chicago has won its last four at home, where Jonathan Toews has amassed eight points during a five-game run. Toews scored the tying goal late in regulation Sunday to give him 19 points in his last 12 games.

The Sharks have held Toews without a point in two games this season after the center amassed six in last year's sweep in the Western Conference finals.

Marian Hossa has 13 points in his last 10 games, but just one in two against San Jose this season.

The Blackhawks have outshot the Sharks twice in the first period of their three meetings, finishing even the other time. San Jose has been outshot in the opening period in its last four games.

"It says we have to start better, that's the negative, I guess," McLellan said. "But the will and the drive and the desire is there."

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to bounce back vs. Lightning tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to bounce back vs. Lightning tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. How will Blackhawks respond to worst loss of season?

The Blackhawks suffered their worst loss of the season on Saturday in a 7-0 rout at the hands of the Panthers. It was the first time they've lost by at least seven goals since 2011 when Edmonton beat them 9-2 and the first time they lost 7-0 since 2001 against San Jose; the Blackhawks lost to Washington 6-0 earlier this year. But by no means was Saturday their worst effort of the season. A questionable interference penalty by Marcus Kruger led to a two-man advantage, which Florida cashed in on with a goal and another shortly after, and it opened up the floodgates. Expect a big bounce-back against a hungry Lightning team.

2. Lightning fighting for playoff lives.

Every game is a must-win for the Lightning with eight games remaining on their schedule. They're three points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand on the Bruins, who currently occupy that spot, but still have to jump the Islanders. The Lightning didn't do themselves any favors by losing three straight in regulation last week, but they've won two in a row and tonight will be the first of a four-game homestand for them.

3. Keep the puck off Nikita Kucherov's stick.

There isn't a hotter player in the NHL right now than Kucherov, who has seven goals and two assists in his last four games. He's had two hat tricks in the past month, and he ranks sixth in the league with 78 points and second in goals with 38. You know how lethal Artemi Panarin's slapshot is from the left faceoff circle? That's Kucherov, but on the right side.

4. Staying disciplined.

The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team in the league, but they acted out of character Saturday by racking up 30 penalty minutes. They were also slapped with a pair of unsportsmanlike penalties, which isn't something you normally see from Joel Quenneville's teams. Ryan Hartman, who along with Marcus Kruger was penalized for "yapping" at the officials, accepted responsibility for it after the game, and insisted it "won't happen again."

5. Special teams to play key factor?

On the flip side, the Lightning are the second-most penalized team, averaging just over 11 penalty minutes per game. Power plays will be key for the Blackhawks in an effort to keep Tampa Bay's collection of talented young goal scorers off the ice. The Lightning also boast a top-five power play unit with a 22 percent success rate. Both teams would be better served staying out of the box and making this a 5-on-5 battle.

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Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

The Blackhawks have talked the past several games now about how they need to play better, how they need to get back to their 60-minute game. But even when you tell yourself you have to improve the message doesn't always translate into immediate action. That's especially true if, despite so-so play, you're still managing victories or still eking out a point.

Sometimes, you need a jolt to realize you have to get better. Well, that thud the Blackhawks made in South Florida ought to get their attention. 

The Blackhawks' 7-0 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, that "ugly, ugly game," as coach Joel Quenneville, is the latest in what's been a mediocre stretch for the team. They've been leaning on their goaltending again (please see Minnesota, Montreal, Ottawa and Dallas games). Or they've been leaning on their ability to wake up in the third period after sleepwalking through the first two. Sixty-minute games and four-line rotations, such a big part of the Blackhawks' success through February and early March, have been absent.

Call it the Blackhawks' mid-March malaise.

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It hasn't been more painful because the Blackhawks have still found ways to get points. Or at least they did until Saturday night, when two "yapping" penalties – Quenneville's (accurate) description of Ryan Hartman and Marcus Kruger's unsportsmanlike calls – started the Blackhawks' demise against the Panthers. Players told the traveling media following the game that this was a wake-up call. It ought to be.

Granted, the Blackhawks' late-season issues aren't as bad as some of their fellow Western Conference teams. The Minnesota Wild are 3-10-1 in March. The San Jose Sharks have lost six in a row. This also isn't the first time the Blackhawks have gone through this late-season mediocrity.

Entering the 2015 postseason they struggled to score goals and lost four in a row (five goals in those four games). It turned out alright. Still, best to avoid bad habits.

Perhaps the Blackhawks are in a bit of a swoon because, really, there's not much for which to play in these final few games. They don't care if they win the Presidents' Trophy (and they probably won't). They're currently in first place by seven points following the Wild's 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday. Whether the Blackhawks finish first or second, they'll start this postseason at home. 

So is this panic-inducing? No. Is it a concern? Certainly. The Blackhawks can't start thinking they'll automatically flip the switch as soon as the postseason begins.

The Blackhawks want to get their four-line rotation going again. Artem Anisimov returning in the next week or two will certainly help that. They want to get their overall game going again. The Blackhawks have been telling themselves what needs to be done for a few games now. Maybe they needed a wake-up call. On Saturday, they got it.