The winners of the last two Stanley Cups square off for the only time this season Sunday at the United Center.
The defending champion Blackhawks (29-23-6) might again be without coach Joel Quenneville as he continues to recover from gastrointestinal bleeding brought on by a small ulcer. The 52-year-old has been released from the hospital, but it is unclear when he will return to the bench.
The health of its coach isn’t Chicago’s only concern.
The Blackhawks are 11th in Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot. They lost to Columbus 4-3 on Friday after earning six of eight points in their previous four games (2-0-2).
“We’ve got to bear down,” said assistant coach Mike Haviland, who has led the team in Quenneville’s absence the last two games.
While a playoff berth for Chicago diminishes with each loss, Pittsburgh looks like it will be making a fifth straight playoff appearance despite its troubles.
The Penguins (36-19-4) haven’t played since beating Colorado 3-2 in overtime Wednesday, avoiding a fifth loss in six games. They are in fourth place in the East, five points behind conference-leading Philadelphia and 12 up on eighth-place Carolina, but the team has been decimated by injuries.
Superstar center Sidney Crosby(notes) hasn’t played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion and Evgeni Malkin(notes), the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is done for the season after having surgery on his torn ACL and MCL. Forwards Arron Asham(notes), Mike Comrie(notes), Chris Kunitz(notes), Mark Letestu(notes) and Eric Tangradi(notes) are also sidelined.
Amidst all these injuries, Pittsburgh will welcome the return of Matt Cooke(notes) to the lineup in Chicago after the left wing completed a four-game suspension Wednesday for a hard hit on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin(notes).
With their top three goal-scorers out (Crosby, Kunitz and Malkin), Tyler Kennedy(notes) again stepped up for the banged-up Penguins on Wednesday, scoring a power-play goal 4:10 into overtime. Kennedy has five goals in the last eight games after scoring only two in his previous 24.
“Staying focused on how we need to play,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “Making sure we’re playing the right way to give us a chance to have success. We’ve had a fair amount of success doing it. That’s really been the mindset and struggle of our team - to stay in that mindset.”
While Pittsburgh’s roster looks different from its 2009 Stanley Cup champion team because of injuries, the Blackhawks had to part ways with several key members of last season’s team because of the salary cap.
They kept their core intact, but have been receiving little production from their role players.
Against the Blue Jackets, Patrick Sharp(notes) had two goals and assisted on a score by Patrick Kane(notes) as Chicago’s top line - along with Jonathan Toews(notes) - accounted for all of its offense. Kane and Toews both had two assists, and the trio has combined for 20 of the team’s 38 points in the last five games.
This will be the first meeting between these teams since Chicago’s 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2009.
“We’re going keep plugging along here,” Sharp said. “We’re going to get on a hot streak, win some games and get ourselves right back in it.”