Well, Chicago Blackhawks fans, it’s that time of year again. We’ve been waiting for more hockey since the Blackhawks secured their third Stanley Cup in six seasons in June, and we’ll have it again tonight. The defending champions open their season at home against the New York Rangers, who qualified for the Eastern Conference finals last season but fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games.
This evening for the Blackhawks and Rangers will start with a banner-raising ceremony, as a big ol’ banner gets placed in the United Center rafters. Hopefully the Blackhawks forego the funeral music that accompanied the last banner raising.
The Blackhawks are 1-1 in banner-raising games in the Joel Quenneville era, having lost 3-2 to Detroit in 2010 and earning a 6-4 victory against Washington in 2013. A lot of emotion and focus goes into the banner-raising ceremony, so the Blackhawks will have something working against them tonight (albeit something great to see) once the puck drops.
But things might not be so smooth for the Rangers, either. The Chicago Bulls opened their preseason slate last night at the United Center, which means the great crew there has a nasty turnaround to get the ice ready for tonight. While it is a great crew, those on it can only do so much. Combined with the above-average (I’d assume) outdoor temperatures at this time, you’re probably looking at some iffy ice. I guess we’ll see, right?
Let’s take a look at the projected lines for tonight’s game, starting with those of your Blackhawks:
There are no defensive pairings out at the time of writing, but Ville Pokka was not at the morning skate for the Blackhawks, meaning he is unlikely to play tonight. That means the blue line will contain three duos featuring Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Trevor Daley, Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad in some combination. Corey Crawford was first off the UC ice for the morning skate, so he’ll get the call in goal tonight.
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One more note regarding Pokka: Q said after today’s morning skate that Pokka being called up was done in order to maximize the Blackhawks’ use of the salary cap. It appears he will be back down to Rockford in short order for Viktor Svedberg, who apparently still has a stall in the Blackhawks’ locker room, according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus. Pokka carries a cap hit of $925,000, while Svedberg’s is just $575,000.
On the Rangers’ side, the Daily Faceoff suggests these will be the lines:
Again, not sure about the defensive pairings here. Just looking at New York’s roster, my guess would be whatever a Dylan McIlrath is won’t play tonight on the blue line, considering the rest of the cast is Dan Boyle, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Keith Yandle. But crazier things have happened. Henrik Lundqvist would be the odds-on favorite to start tonight, unless Alain Vigneault wants to see if backup and former Blackhawk Antti Raanta has some sort of magical connection to the UC.
With that, let’s take a look at three Blackhawks to watch tonight.
Viktor Stalb … oh, right. Current Blackhawks. My bad.
I really like the idea of having Teuvo skate with Toews and Hossa. I think that makes for a killer top line, from a scoring standpoint, that’s really going to be difficult for most teams to shut down. And while I wish Teuvo getting bumped to a wing didn’t mean Shaw has to go back to center, I guess we’ll all deal with it for the time being.
But more on Teuvo. It’s sometimes hard to forget he’s just 21-years-old and that he has yet to play a full season of NHL hockey. This will be his first, and how he performs alongside Toews and Hossa could help determine what position he plays the rest of the season (some of that is out of his hands as well). His development as an all-around player who can carry the torch for the Blackhawks once the likes of Toews and Kane eventually move on begins with this season, so he’ll be a player to watch for quite some time.
I really dislike that third line. It’s a second, unnecessary grinder line when the fourth line does that just fine. So the trio of Bickell, Shaw and Baun is going to need to find a way to provide secondary scoring if it wants to stick together for more than 20 seconds. A lot of that, probably unfairly, is going to fall on Baun. Bickell is still openly struggling with the vertigo that plagued him last season, and Shaw typically provides offense when his linemates get the play going (though his dangle late against Dallas last week was a thing of beauty). Baun will have to show game in and game out that he deserves the roster spot he won over the likes of Marko Dano, Vincent Hinostroza, Garret Ross and others, and just hitting guys and being a body isn’t going to cut it with how this lineup is currently constructed. Best of luck, kid.
It’s going to happen at some point. Maybe not tonight, but in the future. Daley is going to be woefully out of position while trying to pinch in on offense. The only hope is that his tendency to do this results in more goals created for this own team than the opposition. It starts tonight with a Rangers squad that has some speedy characters who can make a defenseman pay for getting lost in the action. Daley’s most-likely playing partners seem to be Hjalmarsson or Seabrook, so he’ll have a fine babysitter if he needs it. But Daley is really going to have to try his hardest to control his urge to leave his defensive post behind, no matter who’s alongside him on the blue line. Too many odd-man rushes for opponents are eventually going to lead to trouble, no matter how big a wall Crawford can be.
Game prediction: Unfortunately, I don’t think the Blackhawks will win this contest. While their mark in banner-raisers under Q is 1-1, neither game has been what you’d call pretty. Of course, it is the first game of the season, so it’s not going to be a work of art. I think the Rangers have more stability than the Blackhawks at this point, and that this will help them settle in quicker as this game rolls along. While sketchy ice could take its toll, I think the Rangers prevail 3-2 at the UC.
Have a player you’re most interested to watch tonight? Think my prediction is awful? Let us know in the comment section.
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