(SportsNetwork.com) - It hasn't been too often this season that the Chicago Blackhawks have been viewed as the underdog.
The defending champions, though, certainly have their work cut out for them on Friday night when they host the NHL-leading Anaheim Ducks in a matchup that is sure to have the energy of a postseason bout.
After having captured their second Stanley Cup title in four seasons last year, the Blackhawks are once again right in the thick of contention. They lead the Central Division with 71 points, two ahead of the St. Louis Blues.
However, Chicago is six points behind red-hot Anaheim, which tops the NHL and Pacific Division with 77 points. The Ducks, winners in eight straight and 18 of their last 19 games, own an 11-point lead over the second-place San Jose Sharks in the division.
That makes this meeting, the second between the clubs this season, a possible Western Conference finals preview and Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford is anticipating a playoff-like atmosphere.
"They've been on a roll lately. They have been scoring a lot of goals so it's a good challenge for us," said Crawford of the Ducks.
"We're aware of where they are (in the standings), how they've been playing and what kind of streak they're on, but on ice it's more about our team and how we're playing other than trying to counter whatever they're doing. We want to make the pace and we want to be the ones to get it going and not wait for them to start out and try to react to them."
Chicago hopes it isn't reacting to Anaheim constantly lighting the goal lamp. The Ducks are coming off a record-setting 9-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks as they joined the 1967-68 Montreal Canadiens as the only teams to win 18 games over a 19-game span.
The Ducks set franchise single-game records with nine goals and six on the power play. Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry and Nick Bonino each scored twice, while Perry added two assists. Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf returned to the lineup after missing the last game with a lower-body injury. He collected two assists, including the 400th of his career.
Anaheim has scored at least four goals in seven of its last eight games and is third in the NHL with 3.43 goals per game. Chicago leads the league with 3.53 goals per game.
Anaheim won its 10th straight at home and remains the only club to have not lost in regulation as the hosting team this season, going 20-0-2.
Frederik Andersen got the start in net for an ill Jonas Hiller and made 31 saves for the Ducks, who also visit St. Louis on Saturday.
"You just approach every game and play. You have to prepare yourself and have a game plan. And if you execute it, you have a good chance of winning," said Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano. "Tonight, we did that. Freddy (Andersen) made some good stops in the first period that kept us in the game. We were able to get a bunch of goals."
The flu prevented Hiller from trying to stretch his club-record winning streak to 15 straight games. It is unknown if he will be able to play tonight or if Andersen will face the Blackhawks for the first time.
Hiller, the first goaltender to win 14 straight starts since Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso from March 9-April 9, 1993, is 10-4-2 with a 2.27 goals against average in 17 career meetings with the Blackhawks. That includes 23 saves in a 3-2 shootout win in Chicago on Dec. 6.
Kyle Palmieri had the winner in the shootout and both Getzlaf and Perry had goals in the Ducks' fifth straight win over the Blackhawks.
Antti Raanta made 24 saves for the 'Hawks, who have lost three straight and five of their last eight at home to the Ducks.
Crawford will start tonight and is 5-4-1 with a 2.22 GAA in his career versus the Ducks. However, he is winless since Nov. 29, dropping back-to-back games before suffering a lower-body injury in a game versus Florida on Dec. 8.
Crawford returned to action on Jan. 2, but has gone 0-1-4 in five starts since. He made 23 saves in Tuesday's 3-2 overtime setback to the Colorado Avalanche.
The Blackhawks fell to 1-1-3 in their last five games, though they did battle back from 2-0 down in the first period to earn a point. Johnny Oduya and Andrew Shaw had goals, with Brandon Saad assisting on both tallies.
Chicago fell to 0-5 in overtime this season.