Stingy defense has played a critical role in the Chicago Blackhawks' nine-game winning streak. That trend could very well continue considering the Toronto Maple Leafs' scoring slump.
The reigning Stanley Cup champions aim to extend their remarkable run and hand the Maple Leafs a fourth consecutive loss in Friday night's matchup at Air Canada Centre.
Though Chicago (29-13-4) has gotten plenty of offense during its longest unbeaten stretch since a franchise-record 11-game streak Feb. 22-March 6, 2013, it needed another superb performance from Corey Crawford to increase it. The Montreal-area native made 17 of his 38 saves in the third period to lead the Blackhawks to Thursday's 2-1 victory over the Canadiens and give newly extended coach Joel Quenneville his 783rd regular-season win to move into sole possession of second place on the career list.
Crawford won his seventh consecutive start and has yielded nine goals over his last six, though he could give way to Scott Darling against a Maple Leafs team that's scored just twice during its skid and will be playing its second straight without top-line forward James van Riemsdyk, out 6 to 8 weeks after fracturing his left foot in Saturday's 7-0 shellacking by San Jose.
Van Riemsdyk is tied for the team lead with 29 points and is second with 14 goals, including a team-high five on a power play that's 2 for 29 over the last eight games.
Leo Komarov tops the club with 15 goals but has none over a nine-game stretch as one of several key players that haven't produced of late. Tyler Bozak is on a seven-game goal drought and Joffrey Lupul doesn't have a point in nine straight.
Though the Maple Leafs amassed 42 shots Wednesday against Columbus, their lone goal during a 3-1 loss didn't come until Brad Boyes scored with 2:27 left.
"As much as we could say we out-chanced them and outshot them and all that, catch-up hockey is losing hockey," coach Mike Babcock said.
The Blackhawks are capitalizing on their opportunities, having generated 34 goals over the streak to support the strong work of Crawford and Darling, who won his second straight start with 17 saves in a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Jan. 6.
''There are a lot of factors, but it seems like our team is just coming together,'' Crawford said. ''We're not taking as many penalties. We're playing a simple game with speed and skill. And there's a lot more chemistry throughout the lineup.''
Chicago's stars are coming through as well. Patrick Kane has 13 of his league-leading 63 points during the run and captain Jonathan Toews has three goals and four assists over a four-game point streak after recording the opening score against Montreal.
James Reimer will be tasked with keeping both in check as the Toronto netminder seeks his first win since Nov. 20. After missing most of December with a groin injury, Reimer allowed two goals each in recent losses to Los Angeles and Columbus to fall to 0-4-1 in five starts despite a 1.82 goals-against average during that span. Toronto has scored just five goals in those games.
Reimer owns a 4.13 GAA in three starts against Chicago but made 45 saves in a 3-2 home win on Nov. 1, 2014.
The Blackhawks have won nine of the past 11 meetings, including a 4-0 victory in Chicago on Dec. 21, 2014.