Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series


Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series

Before the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning square off for Game 1, let's take a look at five storylines to follow throughout the Stanley Cup Final:

1. Adjusting from physical Ducks to speedy Lightning
After playing a bruising Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks are now shifting their focus to a Lightning-fast Tampa Bay team. That means short shifts and fresh legs at all times. The Lightning — the youngest out of all 16 playoff teams — come at you in waves, and force their opponents to keep up with their speed rather than dodge their hits. The Ducks tried wearing out the Blackhawks by using their physicality but fell short. It's a completely different hockey game this time around. While the Blackhawks are certainly capable of playing an up-tempo style, defending a team just as fast can be more taxing than anything.
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2. Can Lightning contain "nuclear option" of Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane?
Coach Joel Quenneville normally resorts to inserting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line during emergency situations, and trailing 3-2 in the Western Conference Final to the Ducks qualified as that. Since then, the two have exploded for a combined seven points (three goals, four assists) making it difficult for the Blackhawks head coach to separate them. So he won't, as indicated during Tuesday's morning skate. If that's the case, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has no other option but to keep its top two defensemen, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, on the same pairing rather than utilize their minutes separately.
3. How will Blackhawks slow down "Triplets" line?
The intriguing part about Kane moving to the Blackhawks' first line means Marian Hossa, one of the NHL's best defensive forwards, will be bumped to the second unit. The line of Saad-Toews-Hossa has been brilliant at stifling the opponents' top players, and splitting them up could — for the Lightning — be looked at as an opportunity to exploit the defensive matchup. Tampa Bay's "Triplets" line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov has been nearly unstoppable this postseason. They've combined for 45 points (28 goals, 27 assists) in 20 playoff games so far, and continue to elevate their game as the lights shine brighter. Quenneville showed plenty of confidence in his fourth line last series, which did a solid job of holding down the Ducks' top line featuring Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But the "Triplets" are a much quicker group, and this is where Hossa's two-way ability may be called upon. With the home team having the benefit of last line change, we'll get our first look as to how the Lightning will set the tone and play their matchups in Games 1 and 2.
4. Corey Crawford's experience vs. Ben Bishop's youth
Corey Crawford has bounced back from his first round debacle against Nashville as well as he could have, in large part because of his experience. He's won a Stanley Cup and has been in the league long enough to know what it takes to overcome certain types of adversity. Ben Bishop, on the other hand, is still a rookie in the postseason. Make no mistake, he's one of the biggest reasons the Lightning have made it this far, but Bishop is still searching for that consistency. The 6-foot-7 netminder earned a pair of impressive shutout wins, including Game 7, against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, but on the contrary also allowed five goals in each of his three home games. Whether Bishop's inexperience will play a factor on the biggest stage will be something to keep an eye on, especially considering the tall challenge it was for Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen — who cruised through the first two rounds — to handle such adversity in his first playoff run against the Blackhawks.
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5. Blue line depth will be tested
On paper, this year's Stanley Cup Final is about as even as it gets. Both teams have fire power and the ability to confidently roll any of its four forward lines. But both teams also have question marks on the back end of its defense. The Blackhawks rely heavily on their top four defensemen to play high quality minutes. It's a risky game to play as the postseason gets deeper and the opponents get tougher, especially against this Lightning team full of fresh legs. Tampa Bay divides up minutes on its blue line more evenly but there are still holes that the Blackhawks will surely look to take advantage of. It's the weakest link for both teams, and the one that hides its issue better than the other may be the team that's hoisting the Stanley Cup when it's all said and done.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.