Who should Blackhawks fans watch out for from the defending champion Penguins when they visit the United Center tonight?
The Chicago Blackhawks are finally hitting the ice for their first regular season game of the 2017-18 campaign tonight and they begin the season with the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. After a long offseason and the disappointment of the playoffs last season, it is exciting to see this new roster playing at full speed for the first time.
The Penguins (0-0-1) started their season with an overtime loss at the hands of the St. Louis Blues last night after raising their fifth Stanley Cup banner to the rafters in a pregame ceremony. While the Penguins only pick up one point, they showed the resiliency this battle-tested team has, scoring two goals with under seven minutes to play to tie the game and ensure they didn’t come out of the night with no points.
Unless you stumbled upon a Blackhawks blog randomly and have never seen hockey before, you certainly know the names Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and even Phil Kessel. But these three names alone have not made the Penguins defending champions for the second straight season. Here are three players to watch for tonight in the showdown between the Blackhawks and the Penguins.
Whenever you get paired on a line with Sidney Crosby as your center, you are probably going to be a player to watch. Sheary is a 25 year-old winger that is entering his third season with the Penguins. In his 105 games over the last two seasons with the team, Sheary has 30 goals, 63 points, and is a plus-23.
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Sheary is not the tallest player at 5’8”, but as Blackhawks fans we shouldn’t be too critical of shorter players. What Sheary does have is a good amount of speed, a tenacity to take contact and get into some harder areas on the ice, and a relatively strong defensive game. In his two seasons with the club, Sheary has a 53.9 percent Corsi-for and he has become a strong linemate that Sidney Crosby can rely on.
Sherry will be an early test for the Blackhawks defense that many worry will not be able to keep up with some players. If Sheary is able to use his speed to drive into the ‘Hawks defensive zone and keep pressure in that end, it could be a long night for the Blackhawks. Limiting the amount of time Sidney Crosby has in his offensive zone is essential and Sheary is more than capable of helping the Penguins produce. He already has a goal on the season, the game-tying tally in the third period last night.
Another young player, Guentzel will celebrate his 23rd birthday on Friday. The winger is only in his second season with the Penguins and only played 40 regular season games with the team last season, but he did have 16 goals and 17 assists in those 40 games and was a plus-7.
What really stood out with Guentzel was his postseason play last year. In the 25 Stanley Cup playoff games he played in, Guentzel scored 13 goals and added 8 assists. 5 of his goals were game winners for the Penguins, almost a third of the 16 game winning goals required to raise the Cup. Guentzel always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and capitalized on his opportunity to shine more than a couple of times.
Guentzel is a strong skater and doesn’t mind getting to the net. His assist last night on the Sidney Crosby goal in the third period shows him out battling Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson to a prime position in front of the net where he is able to kick the puck towards his backhand before Crosby fires the biscuit in first.
The line of Guentzel – Crosby – Sheary will need to be contained by the ‘Hawks forwards and defensemen if the ‘Hawks want to end the night with a two in the points column.
I considered listing Ryan Reaves as the third player on this list just so I could rant about that dumpster fire personified, but Pittsburgh is too talented a team to waste talking about him (or to waste a roster spot on!). Instead, let’s talk about one of the solid Penguins defensemen not named Letang.
Schultz is a 27 year-old in only his second full season with the Penguins after joining the team in 2016 in a trade with Edmonton. In his first full season with Pittsburgh in 2016-17, Schultz tallied 12 goals, 39 assists, and was a plus-27 in 78 games with the team. His 51.2 percent Corsi-for is a solid number and he was able to skate an average of 20:27 per game a season ago. He had a goal last night against the Blues, as well, and finished the night with 4 shots on goal.
Scultz is capable of adding a good deal of offense to the Penguins, making an already dangerous forward group even more lethal. Schultz is strong on defense as well and has really developed into a great two-way player after struggling in his early years in Edmonton.
If Schultz is able to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone and drive shots towards Corey Crawford, it could be trouble. The Blackhawks need to look at keeping a body in front of Schultz when he is in the ‘Hawks zone and not give him a lane to get the puck toward the net. On offense, the Blackhawks will want to sustain pressure and keep Schultz and the rest of the Penguins defense on their heels.