GLENDALE, Ariz. — Every season around this time, the Chicago Blackhawks embark on a lengthy road trip through the western portion of North America dubbed “the circus trip” because Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s circus literally occupies Chicago’s United Center for about two weeks.
Given the recent success of the Blackhawks, who have won two Stanley Cups in the past four seasons and have the most points in the NHL this season, the circus moniker has taken on a dual meaning. With the Blackhawks in Glendale to complete a seven-game trip against the Coyotes, you might say the circus is coming to town.
“It’s always an exciting game with Chicago,” coach Dave Tippett said. “There seems to be some fans that follow them around that makes our fans come out in droves.”
In this instance, those droves can be quantified. The game is already a sellout, with standing-room-only tickets remaining for $22 apiece. Since Chicago is one of the team’s premium-priced games, the average ticket price is significantly higher than normal, giving this game the highest gate revenue the franchise has ever had for a regular-season contest.
The game will also break a regular-season record for suite revenue, with all 87 suites sold out for the first time since the team moved west to Glendale in 2003.
And why not? The Hawks enter Saturday’s game leading the league in goals with 97. Their top two lines and blue line are littered with household names such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. When play begins on Saturday, Chicago will have more points (42) than any team in the league. The Hawks are also riding a five-game winning streak.
“They have some very good players. You don’t get to be Stanley Cup champions two of the last four years without having a solid, full group,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “They’ve experienced a lot of highs, and their players know how hard it is to win, how deep you have to go to win.”
Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata played for the Blackhawks for nearly two seasons (2005-06, 2006-07) and still keeps in touch with some of the holdovers.
“When you play a team that you played for, it’s still special,” Vrbata said.
But the thing that makes this matchup truly special, Vrbata said, is the rivalry that was built when the Coyotes eliminated the Blackhawks in six games in the Western Conference quarterfinals in 2012.
During that series, then-Phoenix forward Raffi Torres knocked Hossa out of the series with an illegal hit that earned him a lengthy suspension. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith also earned the ire of Hawks fans who accused him of flopping but were likely just as frustrated by their team’s inability to put any rubber past him.
“The last couple years, you could feel it against Detroit because they beat us in the playoffs a few years ago,” Vrbata said. “A playoff series — that’s where rivalries are probably born, and I’m sure that last season when we played (Chicago), they wanted to beat us because we beat them in the playoffs.”
From a practical standpoint, the Coyotes would like to re-establish their dominance on home ice after losing their last two games here, one in overtime to Colorado and their first in regulation to Anaheim. But there are extra competitive juices inside everyone flowing when the Stanley Cup champs come to town — maybe even inside Tippett, who is close friends with Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville from their days playing together for the Hartford Whalers.
“He’s still a good friend away from the rink,” Tippett said, smiling, “There are no friends in the game.”
Defenseman Rusty Klesla was recalled from Portland of the AHL on Friday because he had a personal issue to deal with in the Valley. The team wanted him to be able to skate and stay in shape while he dealt with it.
Klesla never actually reported to the team’s Portland affiliate after being waived on Tuesday.
Tippett and general manager Don Maloney said the plan is still to send Klesla back to Portland — the decision will likely be made after the Blackhawks game — to get his game back in shape and re-establish his physical presence. But Maloney acknowledged plans can change.
“It’s not a 100 percent done deal that he’ll get on a plane next week,” Maloney said. “One injury and things change.”
The Coyotes sent forward Chris Brown back to Portland on Friday.
Forward Shane Doan took a maintenance day on Friday but is expected to play against the Blackhawks. Forward Lauri Korpikoski (upper-body injury) skated before practice Friday but won’t play Saturday. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek (lower-body injury) has not resumed skating, and there is no timetable yet for his return.
YANDLE DENIES ‘STACHE RUMORS
There was a rumor going around that Friday’s shootout practice had high stakes, with losers such as Keith Yandle being forced to keep their “Movember” moustaches into December. The rumor gained steam when Yandle hurled his stick into the empty stands after missing an attempt, but Yandle quickly shot down the rumors after practice.
“Nothing was at stake, because Doaner wasn’t out there. Can’t have a contest if everyone’s not involved. End of story,” said Yandle, who feigned walking away from reporters with his classic deadpan humor. “That’s an absolute lie. You will know that when you see me Monday — when you see my upper lip on Monday.”