On deck: Two tests against the West

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On deck: Two tests against the West

The Blackhawks sidestepped The Long Island Trap Thursday. Yeah, they blew a 2-0 lead, and needed overtime, but overall it was still a solid road effort against a team whose only two losses in their last six games have come in extra time against the Hawks.

The fact theyd already beaten New York a week ago and were skating in a building with an awful atmosphere showed they were mentally and emotionally locked-in, and they seem to have done that better on the road of late (four straight wins) than at home (1-1-1 since returning from the Circus Trip).

Next up, theyll need to carry that over in their next two games against two of the best in the West one expected, the other a surprise. San Joses been spinning its wheels a bit of late, but got their second win in their last six Thursday vs. Dallas. The Hawks will be looking to avenge their 1-0 loss in a well-played game in the Shark Tank on Thanksgiving Eve, when Antti Niemi shut them out. The Hawks have a 7-point edge on the Sharks, but San Jose has four games in-hand.

After that Sunday game, its two more days off before a trip for their first up-close look at the Wild story in Minnesota. The Wild and Hawks have each played a conference-high 29 games, but Minny has a three-point edge, courtesy of a six-game win streak the last three of which have opened a 5-game trip (Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles). Theyll finish it off Saturday in Phoenix, then Tuesday in Winnipeg before coming home to finish off three games in four nights against the Hawks, so thats an advantage the visitors should have.

But while the Hawks are trying to climb up the defensive rankings (13th in the West entering the weekend), the Wild have done it with D under new head coach Mike Yeo. Their 2.14 goals-against average is just behind St. Louis as second-best in the West. The Hawks were able to solve that with perhaps their most complete game of the season last Saturday in St. Louis. Lets see if they can bring the same type of game in these next two outings. San Joses GAA, by the way, is fifth in the conference (2.40).

Even though theyve been inconsistent of late, the Blackhawks have still managed to stay near the top of the West. Some goaltending (and defensive) questions have come up, and theyll need more offensive balance, as I wrote after Thursdays win. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa all enter the weekend among the NHLs top-17 point producers (Toews tied for 2nd in goals, Kane tied for first in assists).

After bursting out of the gate, it seems at times this Hawks team needs to be challenged be it with the opponent theyre playing, or needing to bounce back after unexpected setbacks. They've hit a few bumps along the way this past month and these next two games should provide an interesting gauge on whether the arrows definitely pointing up.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Corey Crawford will start but Marcus Kruger won't play yet when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

Scott Darling is coming off a 30-stop shutout in the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over Boston on Friday night. Coach Joel Quenneville said there was some consideration given to start Darling in this one, too, but, "at the same time we want Crow playing as much as he can to get back to the great pace he had prior to being away."

"He hasn't been bad. But certainly that's what we're looking for him to get back to," Quenneville said on Crawford. "I like giving Darls some consideration. We'll see but [Darling] certainly enhanced his positioning."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Meanwhile, Marcus Kruger skated with the Blackhawks for the first time since hurting his hand against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 30. He took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice but was not among the line rushes. Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is for either Tuesday or Thursday but, "knowing we have that [All-Star] break, we'll see how he feels and what our options are."

Kruger said he felt, "pretty close."

"I tried to take it day by day and prepare to play," Kruger said. "Obviously not tonight, but the next game we will see." 

BLACKHAWKS VS. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
6:30 p.m.
TV: WGN
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Chicago Blackhawks
Forward lines

Ryan Hartman-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Vinnie Hinostroza-Tanner Kero-Marian Hossa
Andrew Desjardins-Dennis Rasmussen-Nick Schmaltz

Defensive pairs
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Goaltender
Corey Crawford

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Marcus Kruger (right arm).

Vancouver Canucks (via Canucks)
Forward lines

Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Loui Eriksson
Sven Baertschi-Bo Horvat-Alex Burrows
Markus Granlund-Brandon Sutter-Jayson Megna
Brendan Gaunce-Michael Chaput-Jack Skille

Defensive Pairs
Alex Edler-Troy Stecher
Luca Sbisa-Chris Tanev
Alex Biega-Nikita Tryamkin

Goaltender
Ryan Miller

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Anton Rodin (knee), Ben Hutton (hand), Jannik Hansen (knee), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Philip Larsen (upper body), Derek Dorsett (back).