01/29/2010 2:02 PM - The San Jose Sharks may remain the top team in the Western Conference, but that specter lurking just behind them is the Chicago Blackhawks.
With all four of their meetings during the regular season now in the books, one thing has emerged -- the Blackhawks have what it takes to knock off the Sharks.
Chicago took three of the four meetings, winning twice at HP Pavilion, including Thursday's 4-3 overtime victory.
Three of the four matches were one-goal affairs -- a 4-3 Blackhawks overtime win Nov. 14 in Chicago, and a 3-2 Sharks win Dec. 22 in Chicago -- with the only blowout coming Nov. 25, when Chicago celebrated Marian Hossa's first game in a Blackhawks sweater by taking a 7-0 lead en route to a 7-2 pasting of the Sharks in San Jose.
Taking the season series gives the Blackhawks the confidence they'll need if there's a postseason meeting in the cards for the two elite teams in the Western Conference at the moment.
"For us to beat them in the playoffs we're going to have to beat them here," Brouwer told reporters following Thursday's game. "It gives us a little bit of confidence if we have to face them in the playoffs."
Before that happens, though, there's a lot of hockey left to be played.
The Sharks have eight games left before the Olympic Break; they have the last two games of their current five-game homestand, but then go on the road for six games leading into the break. The Blackhawks have seven games before the break, split almost evenly. They have four home games, and their three trips are to Carolina, St. Louis and Columbus.
The Olympics will provide little time for rest for either team. The Sharks have the most Olympians, with eight, while the Blackhawks are sending six.
Coming out of the break, the Sharks will have a bit of an advantage, though. They start with five-straight games at home, where they're 18-4-7 so far. Their final 20 games, however, are split evenly between home and road. The farthest east they'll have to travel, however, is Minnesota. They'll visit the Wild twice, with their first visit being the final stop on a six-game road trip that starts in Anaheim, goes south to Dallas, then shoots back through Western Canada.
The Sharks also have a four-game trip that will send them to Dallas, Minnesota, Colorado and Calgary in a seven-day span.
The Blackhawks play their first game after the Olympics at the Islanders, and then play five of their next six at the United Center, where they're a League-best 21-5-1. Of the Blackhawks' final 21 games, they'll play 10 at home, 11 on the road.
The toughest part for them could be a stretch from March 13-20 that sees them play on back-to-back days in Philadelphia and home against Washington, then leave for a West Coast trip that will see them play the Ducks, Kings and Coyotes in a four-night span. They also have trips left to New Jersey, Dallas and Colorado.
Oh, and then the Stanley Cup Playoffs start and the real fun begins.