Chicago Blackhawks Week Ahead Has Eastern Flair

Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan (rear) reacts behind the bench against the New York Islanders during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan (rear) reacts behind the bench against the New York Islanders during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
2 of 2
chicago blackhawks
Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) looks on against the New York Islanders during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Tuesday: Chicago Blackhawks at Pittsburgh Penguins, 6 p.m. (CSN Chicago)

Wednesday: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks, 7 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)

Ah, yes, the old home and home against an out-of-conference team. The Blackhawks have picked a decent time to catch the Pens for this swing, as they’re still trying to adjust to their new head coach and support their shining goaltender. I’m pretty sure that last part made some Pens fans throw up in their mouths.

More from Blackhawks News

But the story here has been Marc-Andre Fleury, who is certainly the biggest reason Pittsburgh is within shouting distance of a playoff spot. (Evgeni Malkin would be classified as reason 1B). Fleury picked up in a win in his most-recent outing Saturday after missing some time with a concussion. His .927 save percentage is among the league’s top 10 marks, and his 2.28 goals-against average is no slouch either. The Penguins have allowed the third-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference as a result, but they still sit at 42 points, two points out of the second wild-card slot.

So, what’s going on with Pittsburgh’s offense? Well, Sidney Crosby is in the midst of a tough campaign, especially by his standards. He has just 29 points through 37 games, and his 9.70 shooting percentage is well off his career mark of 14.19. Malkin is leading this operation right now with 37 points in 38 games, while Kris Letang is staving off Father Time (and some terrifying injury issues) for a 22-point campaign so far. Phil Kessel has the same total, which is likely underwhelming for the Penguins. Secondary scoring has been mostly bleak for Pittsburgh, as evidenced by them having outscored only Buffalo and Anaheim thus far.

Back to backs can be really tough, but the Blackhawks have traditionally thrived in them under coach Joel Quenneville. The first half should be tougher for the Blackhawks, with the Penguins able to dictate last change and the Blackhawks boasting a lackluster 8-8-3 road mark. The Penguins are ripe for the picking for the Blackhawks, but you wouldn’t consider a three-point pair of games a complete failure here.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 2, 2016; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma watches play from behind the bench during the second period against the Detroit Red Wings at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports /

Friday: Buffalo Sabres at Chicago Blackhawks, 7:30 p.m. (CSN Chicago, NHL Network)

The look on coach Dan Bylsma’s face in the above picture has probably been worn by 99 percent of the Sabres’ fan base this season. In what was initially thought to be a first look at a team soon on the rise, the Sabres have fallen with a thud. They sit last in the Atlantic Division (yes, even Toronto is ahead of them) and are a point out of sharing the league basement with Columbus. When your season begins with your starting goaltender getting injured on opening night, you know things might not end too well.

Ryan O’Reilly is the top dog right now in Buffalo with 33 points, while Rasmus Ristolainen is becoming a bit of an offensive stud from the blue line, boasting 26 points. Last year’s second overall pick, Jack Eichel, is the only other Sabre with more than 20 points at 25. That means guys like Evander Kane (13 points), Brian Gionta (12), Matt Moulson (12) and Tyler Ennis (11), among others, are not performing up to par. And it’s going to be an issue when your goaltending is sketchy at best.

The Sabres have had to rely entirely on Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark in net after Robin Lehner was hurt in the season opener. The two haven’t been awful, but they’ve been nothing better than average. Both have a .914 save percentage, and Johnson’s 2.48 goals-against average is the best between the two.

The Sabres have some great pieces in place to get better soon, but the Blackhawks should really be able to outclass them in this one, especially at the UC. Of course, the only other time these teams met this season, the Blackhawks needed Patrick Kane to score in the final minute of regulation, then in the shootout, to grab two points. So we should probably hope the Blackhawks show up for this one to begin with. If they do, it should be two points gained.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 2, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche right wing Jarome Iginla (12) during the second period against the Calgary Flames at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

Sunday: Colorado Avalanche at Chicago Blackhawks, 6 p.m. (WGN)

I’m fairly confident the Blackhawks lead the league in Sunday games. It seems like they have one every week. Just an odd observation.

We just saw these guys on New Year’s Eve, and the Blackhawks managed to overcome spotty backup goaltending to grab two points in overtime. The Avalanche are a group that seems to have Chicago’s number, especially when Semyon Varlamov is in “stop everything” mode in net. His stats aren’t impressive this season (.911, 2.73), but he tends to show up big against the Blackhawks.

More from Blackhawk Up

In front of him, the Avalanche have 15 guys with 10 or more points this season (the Blackhawks have 10), and while it hasn’t been enough to overcome poor puck possession stats, poor defense and poor goaltending, it gives them a chance to win most nights. Nathan MacKinnon is still solid at 33 points, Matt Duchene boasts 31 and Gabriel “Elbows” Landeskog is third best on the team at 27. Guys like Carl Soderberg and Jarome Iginla are also chipping in, while three blueliners — Tyson Barrie, Francois Beauchemin and Erik Johnson — have upwards of 16 points apiece.

If the Blackhawks can do what they did for large stretches against the Avs on NYE — possess the puck and throw it at Varlamov as much as possible — they should be able to overcome Colorado’s speed and secondary scoring. As I’ve said before, it’s always important to pick up two points within the division whenever possible.