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Wild West Showdown: Coyotes @ Blackhawks Game Preview

March 23, 2010

Game Time: 7:30 PM CST
TV/Radio: CSN / WGN (720-AM)
Know Thy Enemy: Five for Howling

Stat Pack:

Blackhawks (1st)
Coyotes (2nd!)
4-4-2 9-1-0
Record at Home: 26-7-3 on the Road: 20-12-3
PP% 19.0% (9th) 15.6% (28th)
PK 84.3% (T-5th) 83.9% (7th)

And so we meet again. I thought by now we’d be done with this whole “Battle for Best in the West” showdown thing, but nobody could have guessed that the Sharks’ April meltdown could come so early, nor that the Coyotes would be streaking around the same time, but here we are.

As I’ve said before, the Coyotes may have won 9 straight, but they’ve won 5 of the last 7 ending in shootouts. Blackhawks fans will know what that means, since before the Olympic break the Hawks won 3 of its last 4 in shootouts as well. Nevertheless, part of the Coyotes’ luck involves plenty of hard work, as is evident in the last game between the two clubs. The Coyotes never took a shift off, working hard to take advantage of the holes in the Blackhawks’ defense and coming back twice to eventually take the win.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are looking to bounce back from one of their worst stretches of the season. They’ve lost 6 of the last 10 games and have struggled with defensive lapses since a few games before the Olympics. Quenneville’s even gone out and identified defense as the issue, though he is quick to point out that it is not the defensemen at fault but the way the team plays its defense.

It’s been rather unclear how where this inability to keep a lead has come from, but it is definitely not for lack of talent or personnel. We’ve seen the Blackhawks time and time again shut opponents out, especially during the first part of the season, and even with Seabrook and Campbell out there was that game against Los Angeles that shows how a perfectly executed defensive system could stifle a tough opponent.

Whatever the Hawks did for all 60 minutes of the LA game, and for the first 45 minutes of the Phoenix game, they’ll need to do it again tonight. Kim Johnsson is still not going to play tonight–we still don’t know what’s wrong with him, and we still don’t know when he’s returning. Brent Seabrook is likely to play, according to Quenneville, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to sit him anyway, just to be sure. (In fact, I would support it.)

Antti Niemi’s back in net, and it does seem like Quenneville’s decided to go with him after all–unless Huet is still recovering from the flu, which is doubtful given the amount of time that’s passed since Saturday.

Now, is this game a statement game? Considering the history of both teams and where they sit in the standings– probably. Besides running away with the Sharks’ division title, winning a game against the Blackhawks (and sweeping the series) would be a clear we-have-arrived moment for the Phoenix Coyotes. And for the Blackhawks, winning this game would be more a statement that the team has what it takes to win, even despite injuries (because the playoffs will have them), even through a rough stretch where they seem to lose their focus at crucial times. We’d like to know how this team responds to one kind of adversity after another, and tonight might be the night we get our answer.

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