Chicago analogy still up in (cold) air

PENGUINS



It's not that the Penguins don't respect Chicago's personnel, or what those players have accomplished in the past few seasons.

Fact is, they seem to be quite impressed.

And should be.

Still, the Penguins aren't convinced their 5-1 loss to Chicago March 1 at Soldier Field provided an accurate assessment of how they compare to the Blackhawks, who have won two of the past four Stanley Cup titles.

Mostly because that game, unlike almost any other in the NHL this season, was contested outdoors, with snowfall so heavy that the game had to be stopped several times so that the playing surfaced could be shoveled.

"We didn't play well, but it wasn't a normal hockey game," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "So how we match up against them, that game doesn't tell that story."

The Penguins could get a more accurate read on how they match up with the Blackhawks, the defending Cup champions, when they meet at 7:38 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center.

Indoors. With a zero percent chance of precipitation.

The Blackhawks adapted to the conditions at Soldier Field far better than the Penguins, and did things in driving snow that lesser clubs might be hard-pressed to pull off under ideal circumstances.

Lately, though, Chicago's game has slipped out of synch, and the Blackhawks have won just two of five games since high-scoring right winger Patrick Kane was injured.

"It's not one or two guys," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews told reporters after a 5-3 loss Friday in Ottawa. "It's throughout [the lineup].

"Everyone seems to be a part of the bad habits that are running contagiously through our lineup. Everyone has to look at themselves and think of what they can bring."

Make no mistake: When the Blackhawks bring their best, it's awfully good.

They average a league-leading 3.23 goals per game, thanks to a fast, aggressive style that forces costly errors by their opponents.

"They have young legs and they bring it," Niskanen said. "Those guys, they can play hockey. They don't muck-and-grind the way other teams do. They just come after you. They have a lot of skill."

Chicago's past few games have proven that the Blackhawks, like most teams, can cause problems for themselves when their focus or discipline wavers, but in general, they have no conspicuous soft spots that opponents can exploit.

"They're right up there [with the league's best teams]," Penguins left winger Tanner Glass said. "They have the high-end talent to score, if given the opportunity, as well as anyone.

"That puts them right up there with the elite. And then, they're well-coached and have defensemen who skate well and move the puck well. I think that's a good combination."

Good enough that, despite the Blackhawks' recent hiccup, they are 42-18-15 and tied with the Penguins in the overall standings at 99 points.

And while Chicago isn't likely to overtake St. Louis for first place in the Central Division or claim the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks remain high on almost everyone's short list of serious Cup contenders.

"They're definitely in the top-five teams over there," Penguins center Brandon Sutter said. "I'm not sure exactly where I'd put them, but they're the defending champs, so they have to be considered to be the best."

Whether the Penguins merit a spot among teams with a legitimate chance to claim the Cup this spring isn't clear, and might not be unless it's known what kind of lineup they will be able to dress in the playoffs.

Their league-high total of man-games lost to injury and illness stands at 463 and has been rising by eight per game, with key contributors such as Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and Kris Letang among those missing at the moment.

Even so, the Penguins -- coming off a solid 60-minute showing in a 2-1 victory Friday at Columbus -- seem convinced they can compete with Chicago if they execute effectively.

"Like any team, if you're putting the puck in good areas, being physical and attacking them with speed at the blue lines, it's tough," Glass said. "If we play our game, impose our will, we can beat any team in this league."

Indoors, at least.

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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