As the Chicago Blackhawks (27-13-6) and Buffalo Sabres (19-21-5) prepare to square off tonight at the United Center both teams find themselves surrounded by a familiar story with significantly different themes.
Put the season goaltender statistics of the Blackhawks and Sabres next to each other and it may be a surprise which team boasts an Olympic starting goalie.
Goaltending has been the main topic for Chicago and Buffalo over the last few years. But the Blackhawks, who have had a starting controversy each of the last three seasons, have finally found their number one, while Buffalo, which has revolved around Ryan Miller, has suffered from mediocre net minding all season.
The fact is the Ryan Miller that NHL fans are used to seeing isn’t exactly the Ryan Miller Buffalo has been getting this season.
Miller’s 11-13-2 record with a .898 save percentage and a 3.12 goals against average hardly resembles the .923 save percentage and 2.41 goals against average he maintained over the last two seasons.
A head injury that sidelined the Sabres star for three weeks in November hasn’t helped, nor has Buffalo averaging the 5th worst shots against average (31.4), and as such Buffalo finds itself in 11th place in the Eastern Conference.
At the opposing end of tonight’s ice the story is just the opposite.
Corey Crawford has been stellar, backstopping Chicago to points in 21 of his 31 appearances in his second full season in the NHL, and first as the Blackhawks starter.
And it’s Crawford who has remained solid while the injury bug made its way to Chicago, although he has had plenty of support.
With Patrick Sharp sidelined with a wrist injury since January 9th, and recently injured Daniel Carcillo out for the remained of the season with an ACL tear, it’s the Blackhawks farm system that has played a major part in keeping the Hawks afloat.
Andrew Shaw has become the first Blackhawk since Igor Radulov in 2003 to score four or more goals in his first seven games, while Jimmy Hayes’ size and skating ability has bolstered Dave Bolland’s checking line.
Yet even with the Blackhawks sitting just one point out of first place in the Western Conference the next four games offer crucial points.
Three out of Chicago’s next four games will be played at the United Center with the All-Star break beginning after the second game of a home-and-home series with Nashville, which will be the last time the Blackhawks don the red sweaters for four weeks.
Chicago will embark on a nine game road trip that will have them spanning the continent from Vancouver to New York.
With a tumultuous road trip waiting, the struggling Sabres offer a chance for the Blackhawks to pick up points tonight that may not come so easily in the next few weeks.