Feb 20, 2011, 2:42 PM EDT
The two most recent Stanley Cup champions square off during their only game of the season as the Chicago Blackhawks (2010 champs) host the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009 winners) for Hockey Day in America’s closing game at 3:30 pm ET.
Fans can be forgiven if they wonder: are these teams really the Penguins and Blackhawks?
Injuries, trades and exhaustion have beaten down both teams, leaving each squad to wonder when – if ever – they’ll look like their old selves again.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain sidelined with significant injuries for the Penguins, who must lean on an attacking defense and scrappers such as defensive center Jordan Staal to manufacture offense. Pittsburgh’s status as an Eastern Conference playoff team seems relatively safe as they sit in fourth place, but their chances of wrestling the Atlantic Division crown from the Philadelphia Flyers are dim at best.
While this win would be a great boost for the struggling Penguins, the pressure is really on the wobbling Blackhawks. Salary cap-related trades forced Chicago to allow Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd to increase their profiles with the Atlanta Thrashers and also caused GM Stan Bowman to move useful depth winger Kris Versteeg. Of course, the Hawks also parted with their goalie duo of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet for cap-related reasons too. If that wasn’t enough, Chicago might not have their Cup-winning coach behind the bench either, as Joel Quenneville was just released from the hospital yesterday.
The Hawks are currently locked in an 11th-place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Western Conference’s convoluted playoff bubble. Their position isn’t as bad as it sounds since they’re only four points out of a spot in the top eight, but the defending champs will need to scratch and claw every week to make it into the postseason after cruising in last season. These are the kind of games they absolutely need to win if they want to accomplish that goal.
While both teams are far from full strength, the bright side for hockey fans is that each team has plenty to play for. There’s also still plenty of talent on the ice, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang were all-stars for Pittsburgh while the Blackhawks boast high-end talent such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith.
Both teams will need their remaining stars to step up if they want to come within a breath of their previous heights.
For more on this game, take a gander at the Associated Press preview.
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