Blackhawks expect fierce battle with Sharks (Dec 18, 2016)

The San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks are scheduled to meet only two more times this season, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see these surging clubs face off in the postseason.

When the Sharks and Blackhawks hit the ice Sunday evening, two of the Western Conference’s best teams will each be looking for their fifth straight win.

This is their second matchup of 2016-17 and the Sharks’ only regular-season game at the United Center. San Jose is 2-6-2 in its last 10 visits to Chicago, but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is not expecting an easy game.

“We’ve got a very good team to get ready for (Sunday) night,” he said.

On Nov. 23 in San Jose, Logan Couture scored a power-play goal, Joel Ward added a shorthanded tally, Brent Burns had two assists and Martin Jones stopped 33 shots in the Sharks’ 2-1 win over the Blackhawks.

Chicago (21-8-4) opens up a four-game homestand, where it is 12-2-3, with an NHL-best 46 points after rallying with three goals in the third period, capped by an empty-netter from Artemi Panarin, to beat the St. Louis Blues 6-4 on Saturday.

Panarin has been the Blackhawks’ most productive player during their winning streak. With four goals and five assists in the last four games, the reigning Calder Trophy winner now has 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) tying Patrick Kane for the team lead. Panarin also scored in the loss to the Sharks last month.

Also productive for Chicago has been Scott Darling, who has been solid in goal while Corey Crawford recovers from an appendectomy. Though he has surrendered four goals in each of his last two games, Darling has given up only 16 goals in his last eight contests, posting a 5-2-1 record with a shutout.

“When you play this much, just like any goalie, there’s going to be some games where you have some bad bounces or bad luck,” Darling told the Chicago Sun-Times. “You’re not going to have shutouts every game. … Put it in the rearview mirror and get ready for the next one.”

Based on the timeframe given for Crawford to heal following surgery, he should be back during this homestand, which ends Dec. 27 against the Winnipeg Jets.

If Crawford is not activated and Darling is given a well-deserved breather, then Lars Johansson would make his NHL debut against the Pacific Division leaders. In 16 games with Rockford of the American Hockey League, the 29-year-old native of Sweden was 6-7-0 with a 2.63 goals-against average, a .911 save percentage and a shutout.

The Blackhawks could be without Artem Anisimov, who is day-to-day after leaving in the first period Saturday with an upper-body injury. Anisimov has 14 goals this season, but his six game-winners ties Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings for the league lead.

San Jose (19-11-1) will try to close its four-game road trip by extending its longest winning streak of the season. After shootout wins over the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators, the Sharks scored four goals in the first 26:44 and held on to beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 on Friday.

Rookies Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier have made big impacts for the defending West champions. Labanc has four goals including a game-winner in 18 games so far and Meier, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, scored on his first shot during his pro debut against the Canadiens.

“We’ve got young guys that have come in and basically knocked down the door,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told the San Jose Mercury News. “They’re not coming in just hoping to survive.”

Labanc and Meier are part of a balanced offensive attack that’s been key to the Sharks’ success through the first three games of this road trip. Eight players have scored at least one goal and 14 players have registered a minimum of one point, with Burns (goal, three assists) and fellow blueliner David Schlemko (goal, two assists) leading the way.

Burns is continuing to play at a Norris Trophy-winning level, coming into this contest on a seven-game points streak, in which he has five goals and two assists, and he leads all defensemen with 13 goals and 133 shots taken. But since joining the Sharks in 2011, Burns has been held in check by the Blackhawks as they’ve limited him to one goal in eight games in Chicago.

If Jones starts in goal, he will be looking for his ninth road win of the season. Starting with a shutout against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 8, Jones is 7-2-1 with a 1.97 GAA and .927 save percentage away from home.

His lone win over three games in Chicago came Feb. 9 when he made 33 saves in a 2-0 victory.