The Chicago Blackhawks enter PNC Arena on Friday having just snapped a three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win last night in Nashville against the Predators. Tonight’s game is also the last game for the Blackhawks until they “take it outside” yet again for the Winter Classic on January 2nd in St. Louis.
For the Hawks, it is more of exactly what you would expect, as they are currently leading the Central Division with a 23-10-5 record. As a team, they are in the top ten in the league in both goals for and in goal prevention (106 goals for; 91 goals allowed). The usual suspects have led the way with Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa (on IR and not playing tonight), and blueliner Duncan Keith all leading the way in points for the Hawks.
The only mild surprise has been the quieter-than-normal beginning to the year for Jonathan Toews, who has produced only 16 total points in 29 games played, after missing some time with a back injury. While Panarin was new to the Hawks last season, his ascension to the top of the points column for the Hawks was something the management team in Chicago was counting on as veteran players such as Hossa draw down in production and possible contributors such as the Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen and the Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw were sent out to keep the Hawks cap-compliant.
With the rise of a new offensive star, quality play on the back-end by Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niclas Hjalmarsson, as well as the continued solid play of Corey Crawford in net, the Hawks are primed for another deep playoff run. Crawford’s .928 save percentage would be good for a career-best number at this point, and his 2.28 goals against average would be below his career average. While head coach Joel Quenneville certainly must like the position his team is in, the competitiveness at the top of the Central Division is strong. While the Hawks lead the division, the Minnesota Wild are right on their heels, one point back.
The Blackhawks will certainly be looking to avenge last season’s performance against the Hurricanes, as the Canes were able to sweep the two meetings with the Hawks, including a 5-0 drubbing at PNC Arena.
What to Watch For
- While the Blackhawks’ power play is right in the middle of the league, their penalty kill is suffering at 29th in the league (74.8%). Whether the Hurricanes can have success on what should be very good special teams matchups could play a very big role in who wins tonight.
- With the Blackhawks coming off a back-to-back, and with an outdoor game coming up on Monday, look for backup Scott Darling to likely get the start for the Blackhawks. In his 17 games played (15 starts) Darling has posted very solid numbers, with a .929 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average. As with most backups, getting pucks to the net will be crucial for the Canes.
- How will Bill Peters utilize his defensemen against the Blackhawks? Without Justin Faulk, will he rotate Brett Pesce into the pairing with Ron Hainsey again? Will he leave Pesce and Jaccob Slavin together to be the true top pair? And if so, who will be facing the Patrick Kane-led offensive line of the Hawks the most? We can expect Jordan Staal and his line to get the assignment up front, but it will be interesting to see how the back-end shakes out.