Blackhawks, Penguins square off in possible Finals preview

By The Sports NetworkMarch 30, 2014 at 9:27 AM
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( - The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks have already faced off in one of the NHL's outdoor games this season and their next meeting after Sunday's clash in Pittsburgh could be for a chance to raise the Stanley Cup.

With the regular season winding down, the two clubs square off for the final time before beginning their respective playoff pushes.

Pittsburgh assured itself of a trip to the postseason after winning Friday's meeting with the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1. It clinched a playoff berth for the Penguins and they own a 13-point lead over the New York Rangers for first place in the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand.

The Philadelphia Flyers are one point behind the Rangers in the standings and have played one fewer game than the Penguins. New York visits the Edmonton Oilers tonight, while Philadelphia hosts the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon.

The Blackhawks had a chance to clinch their postseason spot on Friday as well, needing just a point to do so, but the defending Stanley Cup champions lost a 5-3 decision to the Ottawa Senators.

However, the 'Hawks eventually clinched their sixth straight trip to the postseason despite being idle on Saturday after the Phoenix Coyotes lost to the Minnesota Wild.

Chicago sits third in the Central Division with 99 points, one back of the Colorado Avalanche and eight back of the front-running St. Louis Blues.

There stands a good chance that the Penguins and Blackhawks could come out of their respective conferences and meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. Chicago picked up an earlier win over Pittsburgh this season, notching a 5-1 decision at Soldier Field on March 1 as part of the NHL's "Stadium Series."

The victory was Chicago's third in its last four games versus Pittsburgh.

Jonathan Toews had two goals and an assist as he faced off against Penguins captain Sidney Crosby for the first time in the regular season. The meeting came just six days after the two won Olympic gold together with Team Canada.

Toews is third on the 'Hawks with 28 goals and 68 points, while Crosby leads the NHL by far with 97 points.

Crosby picked up an assist in the win over the Blue Jackets as Chris Kunitz and Beau Bennett scored third-period goals and Marc-Andre Fleury notched 35 saves.

"I felt pretty good," said Fleury, who notched his first victory since March 11, snapping a personal four-game slide. "It's been a while since I won. It was getting frustrating. I just stuck to my game and made the stops. I'm just happy we got the win."

The Penguins as a team had dropped three in a row and six of eight coming into the contest.

Bennett returned to action after missing the previous 50 games with a wrist/hand injury, helping a roster that has battled injuries all season and recently lost Evgeni Malkin (sprained foot) and Marcel Goc (lower body).

Fleury, meanwhile, should get the start tonight and is 4-2-2 with a 2.80 goals against average in his career versus the Blackhawks. He made 35 saves in the meeting at Soldier Field.

The Blackhawks have struggled as of late with losses in two straight and six of their last 10 games. Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook all scored in Friday's loss to the Senators, while backup netminder Antti Raanta yielded all five goals on 29 shots.

"Everyone seems to be a part of the bad habits that are kind of running contagiously through our lineup," noted Toews.

Bryan Bickell has missed his fifth straight game for Chicago due to an upper- body ailment, while Patrick Kane remains out with a lower-body injury.

Corey Crawford is the likely starter for the Blackhawks and he made 31 saves in the earlier meeting this season. He is 2-0-0 versus Pittsburgh with a 1.44 GAA.


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