A four-game week for the Chicago Blackhawks begins tonight in Pittsburgh with the first of back-to-back games between the Blackhawks and Penguins, in an old-fashioned home-and-home matchup. The Blackhawks have taken their last three games, including a 3-0 whitewashing of the Ottawa Senators on Sunday. The Penguins have won their previous two outings, most recently hosting and defeating the New York Islanders 5-2 on Saturday.
This will be the first of two meetings this season between the teams, with the second coming tomorrow at the United Center. The Penguins have had a bumpy season to this point, collecting just 42 points through their first 38 games. That’s good for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division, just out of the wild-card picture. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, boast 50 points in 40 games, a point behind St. Louis for second in the Central Division.
Let’s take a look at the projected starting lineups for tonight’s game, beginning with the Blackhawks.
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Crow will get the call in net tonight, with Darling expected to start at home against the Pens tomorrow. He’s fared better at the United Center (2-0-0, .964, 1.00) than on the road (1-3-2, .892, 3.32), so this is a sensible move. The plan could change if the Blackhawks falter tonight, but that’s what we’re looking at for now in net.
The only questionables are on the fourth line and third defensive pairing. For the former, it appears Bickell will play while Brandon Mashinter sits. However, both guys were involved in the line rushes at today’s morning skate, and considering neither is doing anything of note on the ice, it wouldn’t be surprising if Mashinter got the call instead. As far as the defense goes, Gustafsson could slot back in on the third pairing if Joel Quenneville wants a little more balance while Pittsburgh has last change. In that case, TVR would go back with Seabrook. We’ll see how it plays out.
On to the Penguins.
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We get our first look at Daley since he was shipped to the Pens for Scuderi a few weeks ago. Daley already has more goals in Pittsburgh — one — than he did in Chicago, but that doesn’t mean he’s making Pittsburgh’s defense that much better. Beyond the top two, which probably has doctors following it around the clock, there isn’t a ton to be impressed by here.
The offense is Pittsburgh has struggled this season despite some capable guys on the top two lines, and “good for an irritating goal” guys like Bonino, Hornqvist and Fehr mulling around the bottom six. But the Pens just haven’t been able to get it going as a team, beyond Malkin’s team-best 37 points.
They’ve been supported largely by the play of Fleury, who boasts a .927 save percentage and 2.28 goals-allowed average in 26 starts. If the Blackhawks can overwhelm the Pens’ forwards and blueliners in the puck possession department — Pittsburgh is entirely average in the area — then Fleury will need to be on his game to give the Pens even a point. Also, cutting down on the number of extra passes and fancy plays would be beneficial tonight.
Let’s look at three Blackhawks to watch at Consol Energy Center.
It stands to reason the Toews line will match up against the Crosby line, so there’s a good chance Mike Sullivan will roll the Malkin line against the Anisimov line. While only Malkin has seen consistent offensive success on that group of three so far this season, that doesn’t mean you want to give Cullen and Kessel free looks. And that starts with Anisimov winning some faceoffs and keeping up the forecheck — along with Panarin and Kane — when this Pittsburgh trio has the puck. If Anisimov can have some success in both these areas, it will go a long way toward scoring opportunities for two of the Blackhawks’ most dangerous playmakers in Kane and Panarin.
Speaking of the Toews-Crosby matchup — which we’ll be sure to hear about endlessly on tomorrow’s NBC Sports Network broadcast — it’s another critical one for the Blackhawks to at least break even on. Crosby has had a down offensive season by his standards, but that doesn’t mean he suddenly sucks. And Kunitz and Perron are guys who will throw themselves at the net if need be. So not only does Toews need have to continue having success at the dot, but he also needs to come flying out of the offensive zone when this Pittsburgh threesome turns the puck around, in order to support his defensemen. If Toews and his line can win their matchup battle, that too can go a long way toward success for the Blackhawks.
I think the Danault-Teuvo combination has a chance to really break out tonight. Recently, their linemate Desjardins has been on quite an offensive tear, scoring four times in the last three games. But he’s not as naturally offensively inclined as either Danault or Teuvo, who seem to have some nice chemistry. The focus for the Penguins’ top D men won’t be on this line, and Pittsburgh’s bottom six is pretty iffy all around. Danault has four assists in his short term with the Blackhawks this season, but I think he’ll break through for a goal tonight.