If Corey Crawford can pitch a shutout tonight for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks fans should be extra thrilled, if only so they don’t have to hear the Coyote howl that accompanies every Arizona score.
Alas, the Blackhawks return to the desert for meeting two of three this season against this currently just-outside-the-playoffs group of Coyotes. That’s only kind of as impressive as it sounds. Arizona is certainly overachieving with a young squad, including a very green starting goaltender, but with how bad the Pacific Division is, their 53 points are also good for fourth place out of seven teams. Anaheim currently holds the third spot with the same number of points, so this game matters to the Coyotes. For reference, 53 points would put a team in sixth place in the Central, only ahead of Winnipeg.
The Coyotes returned from the All-Star break to a 6-2 thumping at the hands of Los Angeles, the only competent team in the Pacific. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, overwhelmed the Colorado Avalanche for two periods on the road Tuesday, but barely walked away with a 2-1 victory. It was great to see some shutdown defense for two periods, and Crow stood tall when the Avs brought a 15-shot attack in the third, essentially doubling their shot total for the entire game.
The Blackhawks still sit atop the Central Division, their 72 points three clear of Dallas and six ahead of St. Louis.
Let’s look at the projected starting lineups tonight, first for the Blackhawks.
Corey Crawford-Scott Darling
Sorry for the triple pairing on 3D, but I’m not quite sure what’s going on there for this game. Both Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times and Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago report Rozsival should/will play tonight, so I’m guessing that means he comes in for Svedberg. But Svedberg, who was called up from Rockford on Tuesday, had a really nice game against Colorado, especially being on the road. I almost wonder if Joel Quenneville would considering sitting TVR for Rozsival, or just leaving Rozsival out tonight. But if Svedberg and Rozsival play together, it’ll be only slightly faster than a Rozsival-Rob Scuderi pairing. We’ll see what happens.
The only other change is the return of Toews to the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game due to illness. That drops Brandon Mashinter from the lineup in favor of a fourth line that can actually score. Panik tallied a goal in spot first-line duty Tuesday against Colorado, and hopefully the formation of a non-Mashinter line will give Rasmussen and Sekac more than the seven to eight minutes of ice time they saw Tuesday.
Crow draws the start as well. This could have been a game for Darling to get a shift, especially considering Crow is starting Saturday in Dallas 110 percent of the time, but with Darling’s rough road stats and Crow just being generally incredible of late, Q’s riding the hot hand.
On to the Coyotes.
Nicklas Grossmann-Michael Stone
Arizona’s forward combos are the same from their Tuesday loss. This is a pretty top-heavy team, in spite of what anyone on tonight’s broadcasts might say about Doan’s offensive abilities (yes, he achieved a hat trick in garbage time previously against Chicago). Rieder, Domi and Duclair are the aforementioned youngsters who have been thrown into the fire only to come out looking good to great. Domi and Duclair in particular are among the rookie scoring leaders. But no one is going to be afraid of anything in that bottom six, except for Gordon potentially winning a ton of faceoffs.
We get to see some old friends in this game, with 2015 rental Vermette and 2015 castoff Tikhonov both suiting up for the Coyotes. Vermette boasts 20 points and a minus-13 rating, second worst on the team, while Tikhonov has managed two goals in 21 games since the Blackhawks parted ways with him in December. Also in the lineup is former Rockford/Chicago defenseman Dahlbeck, who makes up the only change to Arizona’s lineup from Tuesday. He skated on the second pairing at the Coyotes’ morning skate in place of Kevin Connauton and carries five points in 44 games heading into tonight.
Domingue was first off the ice for Arizona, which kind of is and kind of isn’t missing normal starter Mike Smith, who’s down for an extended period after undergoing “core muscle surgery” in December. Domingue has a .918 save percentage and 2.51 goals-allowed average, fair numbers for a 23-year-old in his first significant NHL action. Of course, for a team with playoff aspirations, this isn’t going to get it done, even in the lowly Pacific Division. Not that Smith (.901, 3.06) would have gotten it done, either.
Now let’s look at three Blackhawks to watch tonight in Arizona.
The hope is that the Blackhawks can jump out to another big advantage, as they did in a 7-5 win over Arizona in December, in order to give the captain some reasonable ice time tonight. Toews was reportedly dealing with body aches, a nasty cough, trouble breathing on the ice (as a result of the cough) and trouble sleeping while sick. He said he’s very close to 100 percent, if not already there, but the Blackhawks would certainly like to take it a little easier on him tonight if they can, especially with a Dallas matchup looming. Still, when Toews is on the ice tonight, it’ll be interesting to see how he looks. No, he’s not coming off an injury or a case of mono or something, but if an illness was bad enough to make Toews miss actual hockey (the third period against Carolina and the All-Star Game), it was probably pretty bad. The Blackhawks will need his prowess at the dot tonight, as the Coyotes boast the second-best team faceoff success mark in the league at 53.8, one-tenth of a point behind Carolina.
Sekac has been held back somewhat since being acquired for Ryan Garbutt last month. Some of it has had to do with playing alongside Mashinter, and some of it has had to do with Q’s insistence Mashinter get in the lineup now and again. Tonight, Sekac gets a chance to play alongside two real players, and I’ll be curious to see how he fares. Arizona will not be focused primarily on the Blackhawks’ fourth line, so the Panik-Rasmussen-Sekac group could do some surprise damage. This is the only Blackhawks forward line with all 6-foot-plus players on it, making it more difficult to contend with. I’m looking for Sekac to make a noticeable impact now that he actually gets a shot to be productive for the Blackhawks, with Rasmussen and Panik already having proven they have a nose for the net.
With Toews out against Colorado, the Blackhawks knew they’d be in deep when it came to faceoffs. The rest of the centermen have been anywhere between iffy and futile at the dot this season. That mostly continued against the Avs, but Danault was a pleasant exception. Danault took 10 of 14 faceoffs for a 71 percent success rate, pretty much singlehandedly dragging his team to 46 percent for the game. Now, Danault gets Teuvo back on a wing, along with the net-crashing Desjardins. If Danault can keep that confidence up at the dot, it’s going to help start potential scoring plays for the Blackhawks. Some fans say winning draws isn’t always a big deal, but if you can get the puck moving the right way as soon as possible — especially in the hands of a dynamic playmaker like Teuvo — good things are bound to happen. And for a team that has begged for bottom-six scoring this season, it’d be a welcome change.