It’s been a forgettable week so far for the Chicago Blackhawks, who have earned just one of four possible points in their previous two games. They have a chance to close on a strong note against the struggling Winnipeg Jets at the United Center.
The struggling Blackhawks offense received three goals in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss at the Ottawa Senators, but all three of those strikes came from the second line, as Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov each scored (in that order). Meanwhile, the rest of the lineup once again couldn’t produce offensively, despite some good-to-great chances (Andrew Shaw biffing on a wide-open net comes to mind).
On the other side, the Jets have fallen on hard time after a strong first few weeks. They sit two points behind the Blackhawks in the Central Division despite having played one more game. Their goaltending and defense have let them down repeatedly, resulting in the worst goal differential in the division at minus-7.
The projected starting lineup for the Blackhawks is uncertain with Bryan Bickell‘s return from Rockford, so I’ll take a crack at it.
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell-Tanner Kero-Andrew Shaw
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Crow will be starting in net today, and it’s unlikely Joel Quenneville changes up the defensive pairings. As for the forward lines, the second unit will, of course, remain intact. Teuvo and Bickell could be flip-flopped, either before the game starts or during the course of the action. I think, with Bickell back, Q will finally say goodbye to Brandon Mashinter and try to reunited the old fourth line that had so much success in the 2015 playoffs, despite its struggles earlier this season.
The third line isn’t exactly a scoring line, but it’s more capable of putting the puck in the net than past third lines have been for the Blackhawks this season. The fourth line can then be used as a sort of checking line, and the Blackhawks can hopefully be a more balanced team. Part of this relies on offensive production from the top three, which has been an issue with Toews and Hossa unable to nail down a consistent left wing — and with Hossa unable to catch a break on a majority of his breakaway bids.
On to the Jets.
Tobias Enstrom-Tyler Myers
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Hellebuyck started for the Jets last night in a surprising win against the Washington Capitals, allowing just one goal. That likely means Blackhawks killer Hutchinson will get the call in the cage. In the only other game of the season between these teams, Hutchinson made 45 saves and allowed just one goal in stifling the Blackhawks in Winnipeg.
Wheeler and Little have been offensively potent on the top line for the Jets, combining for 19 goals and 49 points in 27 games. Ladd is no slouch either, with the Winnipeg captain boasting 18 points. Perreault and Scheifele are the dominant forces on the second line with 19 and 17 points respectively, while Byfuglien checks in with 17 from the blue line.
But the issue in Winnipeg has been the team defense and goaltending. While Hutchinson has shut down the Blackhawks in recent matchups, he’s been pretty pedestrian in other action. The Jets are 12th-worst in the league in shots allowed per game at 28.8 and eighth-worst in the league in collective save percentage at 92.2.
Let’s look at three Blackhawks to watch tonight against the Jets.
Oct 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Bryan Bickell (29) and Columbus Blue Jackets defensemanCody Goloubef
(29) fight for the puck during the second period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
This was an obvious choice, as Bickell makes his return to the Blackhawks and the United Center today. He’ll probably get a warm welcome at some point, especially if he accounts for a point — or, even better, a goal. The Jets are a physical team, and Bickell is a big body. That could work to his benefit tonight, not so he can fight back with more physicality (it really isn’t his style), but as a means to help him hang on to the puck when the Jets try to take him off it. Bickell needs to put his wrist shot on display whenever possible, especially in closer to the net versus just inside the blue line. There are obviously holes to exploit in Winnipeg’s defense, and Bickell has the double benefit of being a big body while still being a guy who the Jets could lose as a result of defending more dangerous players.
Nov 25, 2015; San Jose, CA, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) passes against the San Jose Sharks in the 2nd period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports. The Blackhawks won 5-2.
The Jets should try to take the game right to Seabrook’s defensive partner in van Riemsdyk. The youngster has shown he can be pushed off the puck, and you know the Jets will take every opportunity to do that. This puts added pressure on Seabrook, who hasn’t been sparking on the defensive end lately either. He’s going to want to play tight to Crawford in case van Riemsdyk gets beat by a Jets player, and he really can’t afford to make any ill-advised pinches to get caught out of position. Seabrook’s defensive responsibility is a key to the Blackhawks winning today.
Dec 3, 2015; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks center Tanner Kero (67) gets airborne in the second period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
I suppose there’s a chance Kero is held from the lineup today, but it seems more likely he plays. I don’t know that he’ll center Bickell and Shaw — that’s more of a hope — but whether he does or not, he’s likely to finally get away from the offensive anchor that is Mashinter. That could benefit Kero greatly from a perspective of creating plays, as he’ll have two capable wingers to pass to and accept feeds from instead of just one. The bottom-six scoring from the Blackhawks has been non-existent, and perhaps Kero will be able to break out against a weak Winnipeg defense today.