California Dreamin’: Blackhawks Travel West Seeking Consistency

The festivities are finally over.

January has been a distraction-filled month for the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve struggled to a 5-5-0 record and lost ground in the Central Division race over that time, despite an opportunity at hand to gain some on Nashville.

With the team suffering delays, stoppages and added distractions starting with the 2015 Winter Classic and culminating in the week off as the 2015 All-Star Weekend wrapped up, the Hawks can finally get back to playing hockey.

They’ll do it along the Pacific Coast Highway, with stops this week in Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose as the team continues its seven-game road trip.

With three games in the next four days, the Blackhawks will have an excellent chance to close out the month on a winning note before heading east to continue the road trip with three Central opponents in Minnesota, Winnipeg and St. Louis.

The California trip against three battle-tested Pacific teams should give the Blackhawks a good indication of how the rest of the season will go as they seek consistency–and points–out west.

Kings or Jesters?

The first stop of the trip sees the Hawks battle the Kings tonight in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Finals.

Los Angeles has been mercurial all season long, continuing to confound the league with its inconsistent play. [tweetthis]The Kings slumped into the all-star break, losers of four straight and seven of nine this month. [/tweetthis]

Corey Crawford will get the start for Chicago, and while he’s had an up-and-down season he’s coming off a strong performance against the Penguins on the road, in which he stopped 33 of 35 shots in regulation and overtime and yielded no goals in the Blackhawks shootout victory.

Crawford also turned aside 19 of 20 shots against him in Chicago’s 4-1 win over L.A. earlier this season in Los Angeles.

The Kings are struggling mightily at the moment and have not played well in close games, as evidenced by their 12 overtime losses. If the Blackhawks can jump out to a two-goal lead early on they could cruise before heading down the road against the high-flying Anaheim Ducks.

Duck Hunters

The Blackhawks will visit the Honda Center on Friday, where Chicago hasn’t lost a game in nearly two years.

The third meeting of the season between the two teams will be the rubber match, with both clubs victorious once already on the road. Crawford stopped 23 of 24 in the Hawks 4-1 win a day before stonewalling Los Angeles, and should be expected to start again on Friday in the first game of a back-to-back.

Anaheim rolled into the break, winners of six in a row and eight of nine in January.

Fortunately for Chicago, the league-leading Ducks will be playing the back end of a back-to-back, with a trip to San Jose tomorrow night on the docket. Those California rivalry games are always intense so it will be interesting to see if Ducks netminder Frederik Andersen starts both games.

Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf were buddy-buddy at the all-star game as teammates and captains, but things won’t be as friendly on Thursday night with both seeking Western Conference authority.

The extra day of rest should be beneficial for the Hawks, who, combined with the light travel, should be in Anaheim tonight and should be well positioned to snag two points against the league’s hottest team.

Shark Bait

The Blackhawks will conclude their California swing on Saturday night in San Jose.

As beloved as former Blackhawks netminder and Stanley Cup champion Antti Niemi is in Chicago, the Hawks have shown no mercy toward him, racking up 10 goals against Niemi and a 2-0-1 record in their last three contests against the Sharks with him in goal.

Niemi has struggled lately, giving up 28 goals in eight games this month and has lost ground to backup Alex Stalock. It will be interesting to see which goaltender gets the nod on Thursday night against Anaheim.

San Jose is 5-4-1 this month and in a deceptive second place in the Pacific Division; the Sharks have 56 points, a mark that would put them in fifth place in any other division.

If the Blackhawks want to set a tone for the rest of the season, they can do it with a California sweep with three healthy matchups before returning to fight for the Central during the back stretch of the season.