Blackhawks seek to take a bite out of the Sharks

Tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks are in San Jose, facing off against their former Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, Antti Niemi, and their Western Conference rival, the Sharks.

No matter if Niemi stays with the Sharks or if he goes on to another team, that's how it will always be said. Niemi, after all, helped the Blackhawks win their first Cup in 49 years. Then the Sharks got Niklas Hjalmarsson to sign an offer sheet, and it put the salary-cap-strapped Blackhawks over a barrel in terms of choosing between a young and promising defenseman, and a young and promising goalie; they couldn't keep both without further gutting their roster of players considered core - or moving Brian Campbell's monster contract, which wasn't going to happen, at least not in the summer of 2010.

This season, as the Blackhawks goalie tandem has struggled to find consistency and to raise their save percentage over .910 and to get their GAA into Cup-contender size, that decision has seemingly come back to haunt them. What if Chicago had been able to hold onto Niemi? The team would've had a Niemi-Crawford tandem for the past two seasons; there's no doubt it would've made an impact, especially last season, when the Blackhawks struggled so much.

Niemi has had his struggles since going to San Jose as well. Early last season, he was in danger of losing his starter position to Antero Niittymaki - until around midseason, where he suddenly shifted into gear and then set a blistering win pace for the rest of the year. After starting the season strong, Niemi now finds himself 4-5-1 over the past 10 games. It's not as bad a slump as either Chicago goaltender faces - Niemi is still .917% and 2.33 GAA - and his play in those past 10 games has been downright schizophrenic, giving up 4 goals six times; posting 3 shutouts; and in the tenth game, gave up only one goal.

Which Niemi will the Blackhawks face tonight? Chicago is 2-1-0 versus the Sharks this season after going 1-2-1 against them last season. Not surprisingly, Niemi enjoys facing his old team, but as more of the roster has turned over since the Championship year, the Blackhawks have begun scoring on him more.

Meanwhile, on the Chicago side, Corey Crawford again takes the net after Ray Emery was given his opportunity to seize the starter role and could not break the Blackhawks losing streak, which now stands at six. Crawford did very well the last time that Chicago visited San Jose, a 0-1 loss. His play since then, however, has been a roller coaster.

Chicago's offense has been stymied recently as well, so it has not been able to compensate for its goaltending. In short, this will be a big game for Chicago.

Some unexpected news came through this afternoon after practice. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who had reportedly been battling the flu, is now listed as being out with an "upper body" injury. He was sent back to Chicago along with Steve Montador, also with an "upper body" injury sustained in Tuesday's game vs. the Avalanche.

To compensate for this double blow to the blue line, Chicago called up Dylan Olsen from the Rockford IceHogs, and will finally dress Sami Lepistö for the first time since January 2nd.

In post-practice interviews this morning, Coach Quenneville stated, "I think Sami can give us some defensive consistency, and even give some offense to back it up." If that is the case, you have to wonder why John Scott has continued to dress twice as many times as Lepistö; but in the meantime, the Finnish defenseman will have to seize this opportunity to prove he should continue to dress ahead of Scott and potentially Sean O'Donnell or Steve Montador. As discussed yesterday, Lepistö has played 17-18 TOI for Phoenix, Washington and Columbus for far more games than he has been given in Chicago.

Expect a playoff-level game, as the Sharks fight to stay at the top of the Pacific conference (and thus likely the only Pacific team to have home advantage), and the Blackhawks seek to gain ground on their Central division rivals as well as to break their losing streak.

* * *

WHERE TO WATCH: 9:30pm CT / 7:30pm PT on NHL-N / WGN in Chicago / WGN Radio (phone app available)

Follow me on Twitter at @Hockeybroad and follow @TCLBlackhawks for Blackhawks-related updates.