The Chicago Blackhawks have dominated the headlines through the first two months of the season, and rightly so. The winning-streak-that-featured-losses may not have saved the NHL, like Sports Illustrated slapped on its cover, but it certainly did draw much-needed (and positive) attention to a sport coming out of a 3-month lockout.
Flying (no pun intended) under the radar while the Blackhawks went streaking were the revived Anaheim Ducks.
After a last place finish in the Pacific Division a year ago, the Ducks entered the 2013 season with the futures of both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry hanging over their heads. For some teams that uncertainty surrounding two stars might be a distraction, but that hasn't been the case for the Ducks.
While the rumors persisted, the Ducks ripped off a run beginning in February that saw them win 12 of 14 games. The cherry on top was the news in the past week that Getzlaf and Perry both signed 8-year extensions.
Coming in to tonight's second meeting between the teams this season -- Anaheim bested Chicago 3-2 in a shootout on Feb. 12 -- the Ducks sit five points behind the Blackhawks with a game in hand. There's still a little over a month left in the regular season, but both sides will use this game to gauge their current success so far.
From the Chicago Sun-Times:
"It is kind of a measuring stick to see how close these teams are together, and where we compare to them," Hawks winger Patrick Kane said. "They've had a great season. They'd probably have a lot more attention if we haven't had the season w'eve had. It's a good measuring stick, but at the same time, we want to prove ourselves and show we're the best team in the West."
Both sides will be missing star players. Corey Perry will sit the fourth and final game of his suspension and Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville announced after the Blackhawks' skate on Wednesday that Marian Hossa will be scratched due to an upper-body injury.
While the Blackhawks were grabbing wins left and right, the Ducks have been keeping pace, earning points in 11 consecutive games. Helping that has been their play at Honda Center, where Anaheim is currently riding a 12-game winning streak.
For starters, the Ducks will need to find a way to slow down Kane, who has 10 points in his last four games. Jonas Hiller will also have to best Corey Crawford in a meeting of two of the hottest netminders.
For Hiller, after a rough season a year ago, there's belief in the Ducks' room that their start isn't a fluke and that they deserve their place in the standings.
From the Ducks official site:
“We definitely have the confidence this year we can win against anybody. Even though some games we weren’t playing our best, we still found a way. That’s the biggest difference between this year and last year. We have the confidence. That’s really important. Everybody is working hard every time they come to the rink. That’s definitely what helps the team and what makes it strong right now.”
A win over a conference rival on March 20 won't be a turning point when looking at the complete picture of a season come June, but given their unexpected rise this season, the two points could mean much more for the Ducks than the Blackhawks.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy