Tuesday: Chicago Blackhawks at Nashville Predators, 7 p.m. (CSN Chicago, NBC Sports Network)
I know the TV schedules for the regular season are made well in advance of games being played, but when you look at the four opponents the Blackhawks will take on this week, you almost feel sad this is the one that we’ll see on national television.
Things have not been great in Honkytonk lately, as the Preds are going the way of their goaltending and offense. Pekka Rinne is having arguably his worst season in the NHL, sitting at 16-14-7, .902, 2.57. But he’s going to the All-Star Game, so it must be fine. Carter Hutton got the call Saturday against Minnesota and turned in a shutout, so perhaps the Blackhawks could see Peter Laviolette ride the hot hand and go with the former Blackhawk. Might not be wise against a currently hot Chicago offense, but just a thought.
Outside the goaltending, the offense has been a bit of a disaster, a flip from last season. When your top two scorers are defensemen, something has gone horribly wrong. That’s not to say Roman Josi (32 points) and Shea Weber (29) suck, but they should be complementary scorers, not the top ones. Filip Forsberg has had a rough sophomore season at 29 points, while Mike Ribeiro (28) and James Neal (27) each have close to twice as many penalty minutes as they have points. Oh, and the team’s sixth-highest point earner is another defenseman, Ryan Ellis, at 19 points. Yeahhhhhh.
Assuming Crow goes in this game, we know the Preds are one of a few teams to have his number pretty consistently. But he looked more than okay in a win against the Preds last week, so it’s not something to be terribly worried about. Especially with Nashville’s offense half asleep this season. Just pound Rinne/Hutton with shots throughout the night and the result should be elementary.
Thursday: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning, 6:30 p.m. (CSN Chicago)
This is where the Blackhawks face a bit of a conundrum for the week. The Lightning are pretty hot right now (though they could cool some by the time this game rolls around), while Friday’s opponent in the Florida Panthers was also really hot until the last week. How do you set up the goaltenders? Should be interesting to see.
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The Lightning had been stuck in neutral for most of the season until this latest stretch. They’re 7-2-1 in their last 10 and have won five straight, vaulting them to third in the Atlantic Division. A lot of this has been on the back of goaltender Ben Bishop, who is now sub-2.00 in goals-against average at 1.97 and boasts a .927 save percentage. Of course, when your record is still 18-13-3, something else is fouled up.
That was the offense until recently. It might have something to do with the fact some of Tampa’s usual suspects are contributing at the expected level. Steven Stamkos actually isn’t leading the outfit, though his 20 goals are first on the team and his 35 points second. Nikita Kucherov is the top dog right now at 37 points, almost split evenly between goals (18) and assists (19). Victor Hedman, the Conn Smythe winner who wasn’t, is setting up a good deal of scoring from the blue line with 22 assists out of his 25 points.
But it gets wonky from there. Vladislav Namestnikov, who was last seen by the Blackhawks performing fourth-line duty, is fourth on this team in points with 23. Meanwhile, Ryan Callahan (14 points in 44 games), Tyler Johnson (14 points in 32 games) and Ondrej Palat (11 points in 25 games) have all struggled to produce while dealing with separate injuries.
This game looks to be the biggest stumbling block to the Blackhawks continuing their win streak ahead of Sunday, depending on how the goaltending situation pans out. This should be a fast-paced contest that could swing either way on a fluky play. That’s how streaks tend to come to an end, but hopefully the Blackhawks can come out on the right end here.
Friday: Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers, 6:30 p.m. (CSN Chicago)
Oh, Florida. It looked like you were just going to storm away with the Atlantic Division title. And then, you came back to Earth. After 12 consecutive wins, Florida has lost three straight to the likes of Vancouver, Calgary and Tampa Bay. Amazingly, Panthers fans have managed not to blame it entirely on Roberto Luongo, as Canucks fans certainly would have.
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Luongo is deserving of nothing but praise this season, sporting a .927 save percentage and 2.18 goals-allowed average. It has allowed the Panthers to stay afloat despite not having a go-to scorer. Sure, they have guys who can put the puck in the twine — ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr has 15 goals, while Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith and Aleksander Barkov have 12 apiece — but their balanced scoring just isn’t heavy scoring. Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau are barely in the 30s for points, while Jussi Jokinen, Trocheck, Smith and Brandon Pirri are all at different levels of the 20s. And it tails off from there.
So this may be a start for Darling, though his road splits are still scary. You know the Panthers will make him work if that comes to fruition, so they’ll need to make Luongo work at the other end. The Blackhawks’ most-veteran players know the goaltender’s weak spots, and even if he is experiencing a career resurgence, Luongo is still the goaltender the Blackhawks made cry several years back.
Sunday: St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks, 6 p.m. (WGN, NHL Network)
We’ll all just be waiting for this game, though hopefully the Blackhawks don’t treat their week the same way. We haven’t seen much of the Blues yet this season, facing them twice in November and earning three points. The disappointment was in the earlier of the two games, in which the Blackhawks went up 5-2 after one period and managed to get just a single point. It’s never too late to rectify a wrong, thankfully.
Vladimir Tarasenko is still the story here, especially with Jake Allen out due to injury. Tarasenko has 24 goals and 21 assists, averaging just shy of a point per game. Alexander Steen is also having a nice season at 39 points. But when David Backes is your third-place point earner, not everything is going to be rosy.
The biggest issue for the Blues has been injuries. They’ve spent time without Allen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Magnus Paajarvi, Robert Bortuzzo and — most devastatingly — Steve Ott. If you couldn’t tell, that last bit was dripping with sarcasm.
Still, this squad is entirely capable of outscoring any opponent on a given night, and they’ll try to throw you off your game with dunderheads like Backes and Ryan Reaves. The goaltending isn’t up to snuff with Brian Elliott in the cage — in spite of his recent 47-save shutout — and that’s something the Blackhawks can certainly look to exploit. This game will be emotionally charged, especially if Chicago is still streaking when it rolls around, so it’s sure to be a blast.