We’ve flipped the calendar to January, and that means a whole new slate of Chicago Blackhawks games to get excited about. It’s crazy to think there are only three full months of regular-season hockey remaining in the 2015-16 season before a few April games and the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Blackhawks will kick off their January and 2016 runs tonight at home against the Ottawa Senators.
January, for the Blackhawks, will be a month of primarily Eastern Conference competition. That should theoretically favor the Blackhawks, though they’ve achieved just a 6-6-1 mark against the East so far this season. Granted, it was mostly against the East’s lesser teams — teams the Blackhawks have trouble getting up for in the regular season — so this upcoming schedule still should help the Blackhawks bulk up.
Ten of the Blackhawks’ 14 games this month will be against East foes, and the other four will be against Central Division teams — Nashville twice, and Colorado and St. Louis once apiece. Let’s look at five of these 14 games most worth tuning in for and paying attention to.
Wednesday, January 6: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
This game will be the second in as many nights between the teams, with the Blackhawks visiting Pittsburgh the Tuesday prior. In recent years, both of these games would be deemed proving-ground contests by experts and some fans. But this season, Pittsburgh has been among the league’s dumpster fires. Sure, the Pens aren’t Columbus bad, but things aren’t going well in Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby is having a very down year offensively, Phil Kessel‘s first season in Pittsburgh isn’t going according to plan and Mike Johnston was fired as the head coach a few weeks back.
Still, this will be the third game in four nights for the Blackhawks, and it’s not as though the Penguins are devoid of talent. They have 42 points in 38 games, Evgeni Malkin is leading the weak offensive charge with 37 points and Marc-Andre Fleury — when he’s healthy — has actually been very impressive in net, posting .927/2.28 stats. And whenever two teams play each other on back-to-back nights, you can guarantee there will be some bad blood the second time around. Should be a fun game.
Thursday, January 14: Chicago Blackhawks at Montreal Canadiens
These two teams will be getting their regular-season series out of the way in a hurry, playing twice in four days. This is the first of those two matchups, and it comes at the Bell Centre, where the Canadiens have been alright at 11-6-2. But things have been rough in Canada of late, as goaltender Carey Price‘s second injury of the season has coincided with a spiral that has knocked Montreal from atop the Atlantic Division.
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Remember when the Habs got off to that ridiculous start that had them leaving everyone except Dallas and Washington in their dust? That’s long over, as they’ve gone 3-7-0 in their last 10 and have one fewer point (47) than the Blackhawks despite having played one more game (40). The usual suspects are here in Max Pacioretty (31 points), Tomas Plekanec (30), and P.K. Subban (27), and they’ve gotten balanced offense with 116 goals as a team. But when Mike Condon and Dustin Tokarski have made 27 of your team’s 40 starts in net, you’re probably going to need another 100 or so goals. It’s gotten so bad that Ben Scrivens was brought in to try and save the day.
But this game should still be a good test for the Blackhawks, who often have trouble with goaltenders they haven’t seen much of. Assuming Price isn’t ready to go, that’s what the Blackhawks could be facing. And shutting down a high-powered offense with the Blackhawks’ patchwork defense and without last change won’t be simple.
Thursday, January 21: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning
When these teams met earlier in the season, the Blackhawks looked quite a bit different from the team that defeated the Bolts in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, while Tampa had retained pretty much all of its key pieces. The Blackhawks still walked away with a 1-0 overtime victory at the United Center. And the Lightning still can’t find the stroke that took them within two wins of a championship.
Tampa Bay sits sixth in the eight-team Atlantic Division with 42 points in 39 games. The Lightning have been entirely average, and much of their play has been overshadowed by Steven Stamkos possibly bolting (sorry) for Toronto in the offseason. And like Crosby in Pittsburgh, Stamkos hasn’t been very good this season. He has just 29 points and a team-worst minus-10 rating. Nikita Kucherov is the only Lightning over that number of points with 30, and he and Stamkos are the only ones with more than 20 points. So the offense is clearly a problem in Tampa.
That’s even more clear when you see goaltender Ben Bishop has .925/2.06 stats while making 30 of Tampa’s 39 starts. He appears to have recovered just fine from the groin injury that hampered him in the Cup Final.
This is a team that seems to be suffering from the short layoff between the end of the Cup Final and start of the next season, but it’s still a team that has a lot of speed and a lot of offensive ability, along with a game-stealing goaltender. The Blackhawks tend to struggle with the first and third of those things, so this should be a solid matchup.
Friday, January 22: Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers
The Blackhawks make the Florida swing on back-to-back nights, when it’ll probably be about 50 degrees warmer down south. Lucky ducks. But it’s not so lucky to face the Panthers right now. Blackhawks South has won eight consecutive games and is 9-1-0 in its last 10, leading it to first place in the Atlantic. Of course, this situation could be entirely flipped by the time these teams meet … or the Panthers could be solidifying their division edge. We’ll have to wait and see.
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Balance is the key word here for the offense, as no Panther has more than 26 points. Jaromir Jagr continues to defy time and is always fun to watch, and he leads this outfit with 26 points. Jussi Jokinen is another strong veteran for Florida with 24 points. But the youth the Panthers piled up through recent drafts is also starting to bear fruit, with Jonathan Huberdeau (25 points), Vincent Trocheck (23), Alexsander Barkov (23) and Aaron Ekblad (18) all producing. And it’s always nice to see former Blackhawks like Brandon Pirri, Brian Campbell and Dave Bolland — as long as they aren’t scoring against the Blackhawks.
What makes the Panthers so interesting is the stark contrast between the ages of some of the team’s key players and how they all manage to make it work. Along with Jagr and Jokinen is old frenemy Roberto Luongo, who has an impressive .929/2.09 statline while making 30 of 38 starts.
So, are the Panthers for real? If their next three weeks read anything like their previous couple weeks, this will be a fantastic matchup on the road. Even if the Panthers fall apart before Chicago visits, getting to see some familiar faces again is always fun.
Sunday, January 24: St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks
Duh. How would this not be among the games to watch for the month? Any time these teams meet, many fans treat it like a “win and you won the Cup, lose and you might as well jump off a building” scenario. Blackhawks fans doing this is just silly. Blues fans doing it is as well, but it’s less surprising.
The Blues are still ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings, but they haven’t shown signs of dominance that we’ve seen in recent regular seasons. Some of this has to do with injuries (Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Paul Stastny), and some of it has had to do with suspect goaltending from Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. The Blues have just a plus-1 goal differential and have the second-fewest goals scored in the Central at 101 (Minnesota has 100).
But you know the Blues will always get up for a game against the Blackhawks. I’d like to say that starts with Vladimir Tarasenko and his team-leading 40 points. But, unfortunately, it always starts with the league’s worst captain, David Backes. He’ll try to get in every Blackhawks player’s head by literally trying to shove his glove into it, and if the Blues fall behind, he’ll certainly try to drag the whole team down with his “brand” of captaincy. We want the Blackhawks to crush the Blues specifically because of Backes and others on the Blues like him.
At the end of the day, of course, this is a key Central Division matchup. The division could look different by this date, with St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota and Nashville all within five or fewer points of one another. The Blackhawks have to take advantage of their home dates with divisional opponents, especially those currently above them in the standings.
Which Blackhawks games are you most looking forward to this month? Let us know in the comments section.