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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Senators

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Can the first line keep rolling?

Nothing but good things have happened since Vinnie Hinostroza was put on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad. They've spent four games together and have combined for 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists), helping the Blackhawks go 2-1-1 during that stretch.

Hinostroza has added an element of speed up front, which has certainly complemented the game's Toews and Saad like to play. When the latter two players are rolling, usually the Blackhawks are too so it's important for them to keep building off this success.

2. Tomas Jurco's season debut?

After putting together a solid first half of the season in Rockford, the Blackhawks recalled Jurco on Monday to see whether or not he can carry over that offensive production to the big club.

Jurco ranks second on the IceHogs with 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists), and scored a goal in three of his last four games before getting brought up. Richard Panik drew back into the lineup on Sunday against Edmonton for John Hayden, who was sent down to Rockford, but Panik was underwhelming in only 10:53 of ice time. Expect Jurco to be subbed in for Panik on the fourth line tonight.

3. Banged-up Sens.

The Senators had a rough December, but January has been kind to them so far. They've picked up five out of a possible six points, and are coming off a big 6-3 win over Tampa Bay.

But they're fighting the injury bug right now. Nate Thompson has been ruled out tonight with a lower-body injury. Matt Duchene has the flu. Derick Brassard, Cody Ceci and Johnny Oduya are also all nursing injuries, as is Mark Borowiecki (concussion), who was cleared to practice and might return if they're shorthanded on defense.

Senators coach Guy Boucher told the media Monday morning that all of those players on the injury list mentioned above "could be all out and they could be all in." So it will likely be a gametime decision for each of them.

Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

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Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

When looking back on the 2017-18 season, it's easy to single out Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz as the two most notable silver linings for the Blackhawks, both of whom showed real promise as important pieces going forward.

But lost in the shuffle — or quietly flying under the radar — has been Vinnie Hinostroza, in part because he started the year in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs when he probably didn't deserve to.

"Obviously I wanted to start off the year here, but going down there, I knew that if I played well I'd be back up here and that's what they told me leaving camp," Hinostroza said. "I got to go down there, play a lot of minutes, play in every situation. I learned a lot and I think it helped my game."

It was perhaps more-so a numbers game, and Hinostroza was a guy the Blackhawks could send to Rockford without having to go through the waiver process. It also wasn't the worst thing for his long-term development.

Not surprisingly, Hinostroza flourished with the IceHogs by averaging nearly a point-per-game with nine goals and 13 assists in 23 games. He was more than ready to be promoted.

It just took a while because the Blackhawks were carrying the maximum amount of skaters (23) and there weren't any injuries to open up a spot.

Eventually, the Blackhawks decided they couldn't ignore his offensive production any longer and placed Tanner Kero on waivers — which he cleared — to make room for Hinostroza, who was recalled on Dec. 8.

And when he finally got his chance with the big club, Hinostroza took advantage.

He set career-highs in all three scoring categories with seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in 50 games despite having only two points in the final 15 contests.

The underlying numbers supported his value, too.

When Hinostroza was on the ice at even strength, the Blackhawks controlled 54.57 percent of the shot attempts and had a high-danger Goals For percentage of 58.33, according to naturalstattrick.com.

He also had a points-per-60 minutes rate of 1.98 during 5-on-5 play; only Patrick Kane had a higher one (2.16) on the Blackhawks.

Hinostroza did all this while bouncing around from the first line to the fourth line, meaning it gave Joel Quenneville the luxury to put him anywhere and expect his offensive production to stay the same. His versatility in that sense, along with being able to play any of the three forward positions, makes him a valuable piece of this club.

The Blackhawks know that, and envision him as part of the long-term picture. Not bad for the Bartlett native who was taken in the sixth round (169th overall) in 2012 by his hometown team.

"I want to make it clear our No. 1 priority as we move forward is to make sure we can keep these young players — DeBrincat and Schmaltz and Hinostroza and some other young players that are going to maybe join our team over the next year or two," GM Stan Bowman said. "That's the direction that we're headed, and we want those guys to be Blackhawks and to take a bigger role."

Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

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Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

Despite announcing his retirement from the NHL this season, Patrick Sharp insisted he's not going anywhere.

And he won't be.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks will be serving as a guest analyst on NHL Live tonight and Wednesday during NBC Sports' first-round Stanley Cup Playoff coverage, appearing on the pregame show at 5:30 p.m., breaking down the intermissions of Blue Jackets vs. Capitals and Jets vs. Wild.

Sharp will join Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick for Columbus-Washington and Kathryn Tappen, Anson Carter and Roenick for Winnipeg-Minnesota.

Perhaps we're seeing a little glimpse of what Sharp's future post-playing career could hold?