Blackhawks

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."

Blackhawks are one of NHL's hottest teams, but have they turned a corner?

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USA Today

Blackhawks are one of NHL's hottest teams, but have they turned a corner?

For the first two and a half months of the season, the Blackhawks were battling through major inconsistency issues. They had won more than two games in a row just once and lost at least three straight five times.

And yet somehow, the Blackhawks still found themselves afloat in the Western Conference playoff race. 

But the tide has finally started to turn.

Since Dec. 15, the Blackhawks are 12-5-0 and have the fourth-most standings points in the NHL over that span with 24. They’ve also won a season-long five consecutive games and have a plus-13 goal differential during their winning streak.

Now, there are certainly some statistical trends that are unsustainable over the long term that could result in a market correction. Their on-ice shooting percentage (13.0) and save percentage (94.7) at 5-on-5 play during their winning streak is a combined 107.7, which is the second-highest in the league over that stretch.

But the Blackhawks are playing a brand of hockey that will win them games more often than not going forward: The top guys are producing, the depth scoring is there, the defensive structure has tightened up and the goaltending remains strong.

"No question,” head coach Jeremy Colliton said on whether he feels this type of performance will continue to lead to positive results. “We are being rewarded. There's no reason to get away from it. It's paying off and the more it gets into our mentality and our identity that this is who we are, and we'll do this no matter what, it's a habit and you don't think twice about it. We still need to work at preparing to approach the game that way, but when we do it's easier for you and you'll set up your teammates as well."

Perhaps the most notable part of the winning streak is the fact the Blackhawks look like a team that's on the same page after making an in-season schematic adjustment in November, on top of dealing with an array of key injuries. The Blackhawks stayed the course and aren't wavering from their game which we saw them do earlier in the season, whether they're playing with a lead or a deficit. 

Take Sunday's 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets as an example. The Blackhawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, gave up a late goal in the second period that cut their lead to 2-1, but punched back in the third period by scoring twice to pull ahead 4-1, which iced the game.

One month ago, the Blackhawks would probably find a way to squander that two-goal lead. That hasn't been the case over the last month and the Blackhawks are hoping this becomes part of their DNA.

"We're finally starting to full buy-in to the system," Blackhawks goaltender Robin Lehner said. "Full effort level, doing the right things at the right times. ... Everyone's just doing their job, and we're starting to feel [that] doing those things gets you rewarded and everyone keeps doing it. We're doing well, but we've just got to keep doing it because every point is crucial."

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Jonathan Toews named NHL's Third Star of the week

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USA Today

Jonathan Toews named NHL's Third Star of the week

The Blackhawks (24-20-6, 54 points) are on fire, having won five straight games to vault them back into the Western Conference playoff picture.

Jonathan Toews has been key to that stretch, and on Monday, he was recognized for his recent stellar play by being named the NHL's Third Star of the week. Alex Ovechkin and Elvis Merzlikins nabbed the top two spots:

In four games between Jan. 14 and Jan. 19 (all Blackhawks wins, of course), Toews led the NHL in points with nine (three goals, six assists). And none of them were empty. Among myriad highlights was this game-winning slingshot to beat the Senators 3-2 in overtime to kick off the week (the 15th overtime game-winner of his career):

His two-goal, two-assist outing against the Maple Leaf days later was pretty fun, too:

Toews rides a six-game point streak into Tuesday night's bout with the Florida Panthers. If he extends it, he'll become the sixth player in Blackhawks history to reach 800 career points. 

The milestones and accolades are piling up for The Captain and, crucially, they're translating in the win column for the Blackhawks.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.