3 Chicago Blackhawks To Watch Against Backes’ Blues

Jan 22, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg (34) attempts to score on St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) in a over time period at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Blues 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 22, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg (34) attempts to score on St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) in a over time period at Pepsi Center. The Avalanche defeated the Blues 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

I’m taking a few deep breaths before starting this preview post, as I don’t want it to turn into a scathing review of the St. Louis Blues. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but you’re here for some actual analysis and …


… I’m so sorry about that. I should probably see a doctor.

Anyway, the Chicago Blackhawks are hosting their current biggest rival, the Blues, tonight at the United Center. The teams have met twice this season, with the Blackhawks taking three of four points — though they certainly should have had all four, being up 5-2 after one period in a game they ended up losing in overtime. But the past is in the past, and we look to a critical Central Division showdown between two busy opponents.

No team in the East had played more than 49 games at the start of Sunday’s action. Four teams in the West can boast that figure, and two of them are the Blackhawks and Blues, who are tied for the league lead with 51 games played. (If you were curious, Colorado and Edmonton are the other two at 50 apiece). The difference between these teams is the result of four games, as the Blackhawks check in at 32-15-4 while the Blues sit at 28-15-8. Dallas is in between the Blackhawks and Blues in the standings, so you know this game is being looked upon as important by both clubs.

At least we should hope the Blackhawks see it that way, after pretty much failing to show up Thursday in Tampa Bay and Friday in Florida (minus Corey Crawford‘s efforts in the former game). Their 12-game win streak came to a disappointing end in Tampa, and the team failed to rebound in Sunrise as Scott Darling and the defense struggled. The Blues, meanwhile, have come upon some success of late after a rough stretch last month. They’ve taken at least one point in nine of their last 10 games, including two points in five of the nine.

Let’s look at the projected starting lineups for these teams, starting with the Blackhawks.

Andrew ShawJonathan ToewsMarian Hossa

Artemi PanarinArtem AnisimovPatrick Kane

Andrew DesjardinsPhillip DanaultTeuvo Teravainen

Brandon MashinterDennis RasmussenRichard Panik

Duncan KeithNiklas Hjalmarsson

Erik GustafssonBrent Seabrook

Trevor van RiemsdykMichal Rozsival

Corey CrawfordScott Darling

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Well, this is disappointing. Jiri Sekac got a one-game audition and didn’t score seven goals, so Mashinter is obviously an improvement. Sigh. Joel Quenneville is a smart guy, but what he sees in five minutes a night of Mashinter is anyone’s guess. Rozsival slots back in for Rob Scuderi in the rotating defensemen game, while everything else remains the same until the potential line-blender drama at some point tonight.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see that, either, if the Blackhawks struggle out of the gates against the Blues. With one goal in their last two games, this is a time Q would normally pull the trigger on jumbling the lines to see what happens. I think what’s stopping him at this point is the first three lines have some solid chemistry, and mixing those up may just cause more problems. The Blackhawks were bound to have a letdown at some point, so it’d be nice to see these lines stick tonight unless the Blackhawks are literally doing nothing on offense (as they were in Tampa).

Crawford slots back in after Darling played like a sub-par backup Friday. Any stragglers who expressed that Crow wasn’t one of the MVPs of this team because he gave up a whopping two goals Thursday (they were on Twitter, trust me) got a stark reality check the next night when Darling pretty much crapped himself. Crow’s stats against the Blues this season aren’t very good because of St. Louis’ six-goal surge in the last game between these teams, but in his career, Crow boasts a 13-4-4 record, .912 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average against the Blues. Considering how well he’s played of late on top of that, this bodes well for the Blackhawks.

On to the Blues.

Alexander Steen-Paul StastnyTroy Brouwer

Robby FabbriJori LehteraVladimir Tarasenko

Patrik BerglundDavid BackesTy Rattie

Dmitrij JaskinKyle BrodziakRyan Reaves

Jay BouwmeesterAlex Pietrangelo

Carl GunnarssonKevin Shattenkirk

Joel EdmundsonColton Parayko

Brian ElliottJordan Binnington

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Dare I say this is a team that actually has some sensible lines? No, because that’d be giving way too much credit to Ken Hitchcock, who probably accidentally spilled some chili onto his list of players to come up with these combinations. They’re not the most optimal lines, but you have to consider the injuries the Blues have dealt with (a major one among the forwards being Jaden Schwartz‘s absence) and the desire to get some scoring out of all four lines. With those things in mind, this lineup is capable offensively.

But it hasn’t consistently clicked for the Blues on the offensive end, and an injury to goaltender Jake Allen has this team at just plus-3 in goal differential. (The Blackhawks are at plus-28, for a point of reference). Tarasenko is the star here with a team-best 25 goals and 46 points. Steen is having a strong season as well at 27 assists and 42 points. The Blues have 10 other players at double-digit points, though none are higher than 28. Four of those guys are defensemen as well. So the secondary scoring is somewhat there, but somewhat not.

Elliott gets the call over whatever a Jordan Binnington is. His career marks against the Blackhawks are not a sight to behold: 5-6-1, .909, 2.60. While he’s capable of pulling off a strong performance here and there, Elliott is also a guy who will let the floodgates open if a goal gets by him early. That should be the Blackhawks’ focus, especially since they’ve struggled to get the puck on net at all the previous two outings.

Let’s now look at three Blackhawks to watch in this one.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 21, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Corey Crawford

Did you notice how Tampa Bay — from the players to the fans — seemed wayyyyyyy more hyped about Thursday’s game than the Blackhawks? Not terribly surprising, considering the result of last season’s Stanley Cup Final, but still disappointing. If that happens again tonight — which I don’t think is likely given the opponent and location — Crow is going to need to be ready again. Even if both teams come out like bats out of hell, Crow is probably still going to be in for a busy night.

It’s not that St. Louis is dominant in possession or shooting — the Blues have taken one more shot than they’ve allowed across all situations, and they carry the puck at a 49.5 percent rate — but it’s who they’re facing. They always want to show the Blackhawks they can compete, like the Blackhawks always want to show the Blues they’re still little brother. That means guys like Backes, Brouwer and Reaves will be slamming into the net as often and hard as they can without getting a penalty. And Crow will have to deal with snipers like Tarasenko, Steen and Berglund, as well as a blue line that loves to contribute offensively, especially on the man-advantage.

It seems to be Crow’s mission to keep his team on track when it falls off the rails, and considering the previous two results, we should expect a huge showing from him tonight.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 21, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Brian Boyle (11) defends Chicago Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw (65) during the third period at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Andrew Shaw

This is a tricky one. We all know Shaw has a penchant for losing his cool and taking stupid penalties, especially in the offensive zone. We also know the Blues host several players who’d have no problem playing along. So, they could goad Shaw into bad penalties all night … or he could goad them and potentially remove some of the Blues’ better threats from the ice.

These are the kind of games in which Shaw’s pest antics can come in handy. Don’t get me wrong, the guy should be trying to deposit the puck in the back of the net, or at least get it to Toews and/or Hossa for scoring chances. But if he sees an opportunity in which to get under the skin of a Blues player without being sent to the box himself, Shaw should take it and run with it. The Blackhawks’ powerplay has been pretty successful this season (though not of late), and getting the man-advantage never hurts the team’s chances of winning.

chicago blackhawks
Jan 12, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson (52) skates with the puck during the second period against the Nashville Predators at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

Erik Gustafsson

I feel like this could be a night where the Blues are focused on so many other guys that Gustafsson gets lost in the shuffle. And then he explodes out of said shuffle by setting up a few scoring plays and maybe even potting a goal of his own. Gustafsson has been pretty impressive on the offensive end, and he hasn’t been bad on the defensive end either. Tonight is a good test for him, as the Blackhawks are a better possession team than the Blues, and Gustafsson will get some shots to make things happen on offense. At the same time, the Blues have threats on all four of their lines, so Gustafsson is going to face tough competition at points (though not as tough as the competition Keith and Hjammer will handle).

You want a way to show you’ve arrived in the NHL? Take it to a divisional foe and one of the league’s better teams. That’ll give future opponents something to think about. I think Gustafsson could have a really strong game tonight.