Mired in their longest losing streak in nearly three years, the Chicago Blackhawks now must get used to being without one of their top players. Their cause might be helped by facing a last-place team adjusting to a new coach.
Missing Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks try to avoid a fifth straight loss as they face a team they've dominated this season when the Todd Richards-led Columbus Blue Jackets visit the United Center on Tuesday night.
Chicago (24-13-5) was 10-2-1 in December, capped by a 3-2 home win over rival Detroit, and had the league's best record. Since that game, the Blackhawks have gone 0-3-1 to drop into a three-way tie for the Central Division lead with the Red Wings and St. Louis.
They blew an early two-goal lead in a 3-2 overtime loss to visiting Detroit on Sunday.
"It's been a tough stretch for us the last couple games," captain Jonathan Toews said. "We played better tonight. We were more deserving of two points. We just didn't find a way to close it out."
Chicago also lost Sharp, who scored one of the two goals in the first 4:19, to an upper-body injury in the first period. The team reported Monday that Sharp will miss the next three to four weeks.
The Blackhawks will undoubtedly miss their winger, who has 20 goals - including a team-high five game-winners - and 20 assists.
Even without Sharp on Tuesday, they might have a good chance to end a four-game losing streak - their worst since dropping five straight March 13-20, 2009.
The Blue Jackets (11-25-5) head into Chicago with the fewest points in the league and 2-8-1 in their last 11. In their latest game Sunday, they lost 7-4 to another struggling club, Anaheim, and that helped lead to Scott Arniel's firing Monday.
Richards, who was serving as a Columbus assistant after coaching Minnesota the previous two seasons, will take over as interim coach for the rest of the season. He was 77-71-16 with the Wild and went 2-6-0 against the Blackhawks.
"We were playing pretty good (after a 2-12-1 start) until the middle of December and we were going in the right direction, but it's gone off the rails since then," general manager Scott Howson said. "On the weekend, I decided we needed to make a change.
"(Richards) will bring a fresh approach and a new voice, and we will try and just move it in the right direction."
The Blue Jackets might have a difficult time doing that as they've lost four in a row to the Blackhawks and been outscored 15-6 during their three defeats this season. They also probably won't have one of their top scorers, center Jeff Carter, after he separated a shoulder Sunday.
Chicago's Viktor Stalberg has scored twice in both meetings at the United Center this season, including a 4-1 win Dec. 26, but he has zero points over six games since then.
The Blackhawks have been shut out twice at the United Center in that span after not being blanked once through their first 18 home games. They've dropped three in a row at home, their longest such skid since dropping four straight Oct. 29-Nov. 10, 2010.
"We're going to stick with it," Toews said. We just got to keep working through it. It's just one of things where it happens once a year where we go through a dry spell. ... It's not going to get easier for us."
Chicago has never won five in a row over Columbus.