Ray Emery will get the start and it will be reunion timeagain when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Florida Panthers at the United Centeron Wednesday night.Its a first-time return to Chicago for a few ex-Blackhawks, includingBrian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, Kris Versteeg and Jack Skille. Jonathan Toewssaid he caught up with Versteeg and Skille briefly on Thursday night. Buttoday, its back to business for both teams. The Blackhawks are one point outof first in the West and Central, again, and the Panthers are looking to takeover the Southeast Division.Theres some added motivation with some former teammatesand its probably the same for them, too, Toews said. For both teams, theresa lot of motivation in standings. We want to get back to first place andtheyre battling to get to the top of their division. The last couple of gamesare big for both teams going into the break here.The Blackhawks have won four of their last five games andhave gotten points in six straight. The Panthers are 1-2-3 in their last sixgames entering tonights contest.Patrick Kane expects a spirited game.We played in Atlantalast year against a lot of guys on our team the year before, and its almostlike its not a real hockey game, he said. Youre laughing and joking outthere. At the same time you want to beat them, too. Its different, but fun.
Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.
1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.
They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.
To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?
2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.
In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.
They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.
3. Something's gotta give.
Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.
Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford.
The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).
Who's going to crack first?
Artem Anisimov wasn’t happy with his October.
The Blackhawks center struggled the first month of the season. Maybe it was adjusting to new line mates after being with the same two for two seasons. Maybe it was just a slow start. Maybe it was more than that. Regardless, Anisimov was frustrated. So as October turned to November, Anisimov told Patrick Sharp that he was going to get back on track.
“He’s scoring lots of goals and he said he was going to in the month of November,” Sharp recalled. “So he’s backing it up.”
Anisimov is doing that, recording five goals in his last three games including a hat trick against his former team, the New York Rangers, on Wednesday. Since November’s start, Anisimov has seven goals.
“My start of the season was not great,” Anisimov said. “But I keep working hard and be focused and say, ‘OK, November. I’m going to step up in November and forward.’”
When told of Anisimov’s prediction to Sharp, coach Joel Quenneville said, “well, now he set a precedent. We’ll have to look for it every month now.
“Quite a standard he was looking to achieve and got off to a great start here,” Quenneville said. “When Arty’s at the net he makes good plays, takes it to the net, draws some traffic to him and opens up other lanes behind him. I still think he has a purpose defensively, which he can add to that line.”
Anisimov’s resurgence coincides with the Blackhawks doing the same thing; after an up-and-down start, both are finding their rhythm again. For the Blackhawks it could be finding some line chemistry. For Anisimov it might be the same thing; he and Kane have been back together since Nov. 12, and those two and Nick Schmaltz have combined for a dynamic second line.
Or is it that mustache that Anisimov’s growing for Movember?
“I thought when you were saying what you were saying (about Anisimov’s vow), he made that statement when he got Kaner back on his line. But I think it was right when he shaved his beard into a mustache. That’s when he took off,” Jonathan Toews said with a laugh. “So that’s the biggest correlation right there.”
OK, teaming up with Kane again probably looms larger. The two have had great chemistry dating back to the 2015-16 season, when they first teamed with Artemi Panarin. Kane’s puck possession helps free Anisimov up to do his work at the net, and he’s been capitalizing there.
“He’s had a great month. He’s just one of those guys who gets to the front of the net and finds ways to be productive,” Kane said. “Maybe seven or eight games ago people were talking about how he was struggling and now he’s having a great start to the season. It shows how a few games can change that but he’s been great for us, not only scoring a lot of goals but a lot of big goals to get some wins.”
Still, hockey players are a superstitious lot. Players have ribbed Anisimov about the mustache — “I asked him to serve me a sparkling water on the airplane because he looks like a waiter in France or something,” Sharp said. But considering Anisimov’s mustache and the points sprouted at the same time, they’re now imploring Anisimov to keep it.
“Yep,” Anisimov said with a grin. “That’s true.”