The snow has finally hit Chicago, the flurries flying outside our window on this wintry December Sunday afternoon.
The Chicago Blackhawks were taking it easy at the United Center this morning, with only a handful of players taking part in an optional skate. All the better to rest up to try and snap a three-game winless streak, we suspect.
Of this morning’s skaters, Andrew Shaw will play after missing two games with an upper-body injury. Bryan Bickell skated, albeit not heavily, but it was just his first on-ice time since getting hurt in mid-November, so we already knew he was out for tonight. Corey Crawford will be back in net.
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Now that the formalities are out of the way, the gist: the Blackhawks want to reverse some recent trends and they’ll be facing a Florida Panthers team that’s very happy and confident after a victory in Detroit on Saturday night. So while we turn our cheeks to the chill outside and sing “Imagine” to ourselves on a very sad anniversary, let’s look at the Five Things to watch for in tonight’s Panthers-Blackhawks games.
1. Beware of an extra-motivated Panthers team. First, Florida got a regulation victory against the Red Wings in Detroit for the first time since God was a child (aka since Dec. 1, 1996, if you prefer specific dates). That will have them pumped to pull off another road victory tonight in Chicago. Then there are a few new motivated Panthers, namely Dylan Olsen and Jimmy Hayes. The two have fared well in Florida; Olsen has points in back to back games and Hayes has three goals in his last seven contests with the Panthers.
2. Feed off Andrew Shaw. No, Shaw’s absence these past two games aren’t the reasons the Blackhawks lost. But there’s no doubt they miss his energy. His mere presence is a jolt to the Blackhawks and a headache for the opposition. There were no line rushes at this morning’s optional skate, but we’re guessing that third line will be Kris Versteeg, Shaw and Jeremy Morin. Shaw said he’s ready to get back into the lineup. That should be evident immediately tonight.
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3. Start rebuilding that penalty kill. Did the Blackhawks hit their rock-bottom moment on the kill on Friday, when they allowed the Ducks a goal with one second remaining on their lone advantage? Coach Joel Quenneville said as much after the game. As we wrote yesterday, we have to stop thinking this is just Michael Frolik’s absence. The personnel hasn’t changed that much; the Blackhawks need to be more aggressive on the kill. “We’d like to have more pressure. Hopefully that can take away the hesitation. Get in lanes quicker,” Quenneville said.
4. Put that home ice to good use. Two of the Blackhawks’ recent winless outings have come at home. They need to get back to actually having an advantage on their home ice. They need to pounce on that opportunity tonight, with their top players getting some rest the past day and a half and Florida having an abysmal road record (4-9-2).
5. Our pick to click (drumroll, please) is Kris Versteeg. Yes, it’s an easy selection, given his close ties to his most recent former team. Versteeg said Friday he has nothing to prove against the Panthers. But he said he also enjoys playing against former teams. We think he’ll really enjoy this one.