The annual “Circus Trip” where the Chicago Blackhawks leave the United Center unofficially begins tonight as the team will take on the reeling Nashville Predators in Nashville. While the circus trip is seven road games in11 days, the addition of tonight and tomorrow’s back-to-back series stretch that to nine games in 14 days, and against some outstanding opponents.
Tomorrow, the Blackhawks will host the San Jose Sharks, one of the more understated teams in the league, who at the time of this writing are 13-2-5 and sixth in ESPN’s NHL Power Rankings. Despite having a bit of a slump and being overtaken by the Anaheim Ducks, Antti Niemi will return to the United Center and bring the Sharks NHL best +26 goal differential with him. Fortunately for the Hawks, they were 3-0 against the Sharks last season and will look to continue that streak in order to build momentum for the impending road trip.
There will be no rest for the defending Stanley Cup Champions as they will be granted a single travel day before facing the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Last season the Blackhawks managed a 2-1 record against the Avs. Despite having lost their last two games, the Avalanche are a matchup nightmare for the Blackhawks and bolster the NHL’s most wins in overtime and regulation. For their part, the Blackhawks have struggled to close out games or pull away in the third period, resulting in a tie for fourth in overtime losses with four.
Starting goaltender Corey Crawford will not start against Nashville, but will certainly see a lot of work in the next two weeks, as backup Nikolai Khabibulin is believed to be playing for his job, despite the mixed play of Rockford IceHogs goalie Antti Raanta. Crawford has continued to string together excellent performances against mediocre competition, but will be tested immediately when he returns to the lineup.
In front of him, the defense for the Blackhawks have been astute with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook putting up outstanding years, while NIklas Hjalmarsson is quietly having the best year of his career after inking a new deal this offseason.
With regards to the forwards, the next few games will likely see if any other line can alleviate the pressure from the top line, which has performed immaculately for the Blackhawks to this point in the season. But, as more games are played, teams will figure out how to keep Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp off the scoreboard.
The relief could come from the new-look third line starring Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell, who are both looking to get their offensive game this season going, and certainly can if they both can create chemistry with center Andrew Shaw, who will look to continue the best statistical season of his young career.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486.