Bruins could get big boost vs. Blackhawks

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Boston Bruins hope to welcome their biggest asset back to the ice tonight, as captain Zdeno Chara expects to return Thursday when the B's host the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks at TD Garden.

Chara has been sidelined since Oct. 23 when he tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The star defenseman returned to practice on Tuesday and head coach Claude Julien was optimistic the big Slovakian blueliner will be back on the ice tonight.

"For a guy that hasn't played in a few months, he's out there and he looked pretty sharp," Julien said after watching Chara skate at Tuesday's practice.

The Bruins have posted a respectable 11-7-1 record in 19 games since Chara went down, but Boston has only won twice over its past seven games. The club has been disappointing overall this season, as it currently sits in fifth place in the Atlantic Division. Julien's club won the Atlantic easily last season, beating second-place Tampa Bay by 16 points for the division crown.

Boston is coming off Saturday's 5-2 road win over the Arizona Coyotes. The Bruins were 0-3-0 on a four-game road trip before salvaging the finale of the swing at Gila River Arena.

Brad Marchand scored twice to help the Bruins down the Coyotes, while Simon Gagne, Loui Eriksson and Kevan Miller also scored for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask allowed two goals on 26 shots in the win.

"We definitely didn't want to go home without getting a point on this road trip," said Marchand.

Forward David Krejci, who has missed the last eight games with an undisclosed injury, also practiced on Monday but is not expected to play tonight. Fellow forwards Daniel Paille and Carl Soderberg are questionable with illnesses, while Gagne will miss tonight due to personal reasons. Gagne is on personal leave to tend to his ailing father, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Boston is opening a brief two-game homestand tonight and will welcome Ottawa on Saturday. The Bruins are 9-5-1 as the hosts compared to a 6-7-0 mark on the road.

Chicago, of course, beat Boston in six games for the 2013 Stanley Cup title, but the Bruins have dominated the regular-season series in recent years. Boston has won three of four and seven of the last 10 overall meetings and the Blackhawks have lost two straight, four of five and six of the past eight encounters in Beantown.

The Blackhawks, however, enter Thursday's showdown as the hottest team in the NHL, having won seven straight and 10 of their last 11 games.

Joel Quenneville's club, which hasn't tasted defeat since a 4-1 setback in Vancouver on Nov. 23, earned its most recent victory via a shootout, edging the New Jersey Devils, 3-2, at the Prudential Center on Wednesday.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both scored in the shootout to help the Blackhawks earn the close victory. Chicago is on its longest winning streak since setting a franchise record with 11 consecutive wins from Feb. 15-March, 2013.

Toews, Chicago's first shooter, raced up the slot, dragged the puck to his backhand and slid the puck past the pad of Keith Kinkaid for the first marker and after Jaromir Jagr was stopped, Kane stick handled his way up the slot and wristed the deciding tally past the New Jersey netminder.

"We knew it was going to be that type of game against this team," Toews said. "I think we always can find ways to win games."

Chicago's Duncan Keith tied the game with 3:13 remaining in the third period, and Bryan Bickell also lit the lamp for Chicago, which received 22 saves from Scott Darling.

With No. 1 netminder Corey Crawford sidelined with a foot injury, Darling is expected to start again tonight. The 25-year-old rookie has never faced the Bruins.

Rask is expected to start for Boston and is 1-0-1 with a 1.16 goals against average in his career versus Chicago.

The Blackhawks are 2-0 so far on a four-game road trip that ends Saturday against the New York Islanders. They are 10-5-0 as the guest this season.