A drawn-out three-game road trip for the Chicago Blackhawks ends with a soft game against Florida, but two contests before that will offer a challenge
On an eight-day NHL road trip, you’d typically expect more than three games. But that’s the task that faces the Chicago Blackhawks beginning tonight, and the first two games are far from gimmes.
The Blackhawks head to Pittsburgh tonight as the Penguins are likely looking for revenge after their season-opening 10-1 setback. Then, the Blackhawks visit the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday.
Neither of these matchups are terribly appealing for the Blackhawks, but recent offensive efforts at least suggest Chicago is finding its stride shooting the puck. The Blackhawks have posted 15 goals the last three games, and they’d have three wins in those events if not for a clunker from Corey Crawford against the New Jersey Devils.
But the positive thing is that an offense that was regularly in the 1-2 goal range is finding some footing. That’s especially good news against the Penguins and Lightning.
Early-season hockey is interesting. Yes, we’re more than 20 percent through the season, but it’s still early enough where single games or short stretches can change a team’s outlook entirely.
Look no further than the Blackhawks, who suddenly sit 10th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-for at 51.14 percent. This was a team that, as recently as two weeks ago, could hardly complete consecutive passes.
Da Windy City
The Penguins are right behind the Blackhawks in those Corsi-for rankings, 11th at 50.98, and Tampa Bay is 16th at a shade below 50 percent. Clearly, that doesn’t always dictate results. Like how Carolina is a possession dynamo but can’t score consistently, the Penguins and Lightning can fill the net despite not being the best at maintaining the puck.
The Pens average 2.76 goals per game on the back of eight goals from Phil Kessel and Conor Sheary, seven from Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, and six from Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. And, yes, this is a Penguins team still seeing moderate success despite Crosby being just third on his team in points.
Things are way scarier in Tampa, though. The Lightning average better than four goals per contest, and there are two big names to thank for that: Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Stamkos has 35 points with 10 goals, and Kucherov has an outrageous 17 goals en route to 33 points.
Yes, the Lightning have 11 players at better than 10 percent shooting so far, but this is the team we all expected to see after its appearance in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. Amazing how far a healthy Stamkos can get you.
Can Blackhawks win them both?
Sure, why not? The team seems to have a renewed confidence on offense, Crow is still a stud in net despite not being in shutout mode of late, and coach Joel Quenneville seems to understand that Brent Seabrook needs fewer minutes for the defense to succeed.
Still, these are two difficult matchups. The Penguins and Lightning — especially the latter — both have speed up and down the lineup. The Blackhawks have had a difficult time adapting to fast skating, but the hope would be so much downtime between games of late would give them a little extra spring in their step.
The big thing for the Blackhawks will be not getting into a track meet with either of these teams. I think Chicago was willing to do that in the opener with Pittsburgh, and it worked because it was opening night. I’m not sure it’ll work again tonight.
And it’s even less likely to work against Tampa Bay. That team is running the track meet right now. Unless Crow stands on his head (entirely possible), the Blackhawks are not going to win a game against the Lightning trying to buzz it up and down the ice the entire night.
So, go into a trap game? Not necessarily, though I think Blackhawk Up’s Steve Yatsushiro made some good points about that in the past. The Blackhawks are definitely going to want to continue their strong possession ways of recent outings, and season-long numbers suggest that’s a possibility.
And so, with some smart lineup decisions and even smarter play on the ice, I think it’s entirely possible for the Blackhawks to take both of these games. It’d be a huge momentum boost, as it’d mean a season sweep of the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champions and win over a squad that currently has two regulation losses.