Duncan Keith

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Wild in Central Division showdown

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Wild in Central Division showdown

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Minnesota Wild tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. What's the status of Nick Schmaltz?

The Blackhawks picked up three out of a possible four points during their mini two-game road trip in Toronto and Montreal, but they've certainly missed Schmaltz. They were outshot by a combined 85-46 against the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, showing the imbalance their lineup has with Schmaltz not in it.

Joel Quenneville told reporters at morning skate that Schmaltz will not play due to an upper-body injury, and they're now targeting Saturday for a potential return. Minnesota is the first of three straight games against Central Division opponents for Chicago, so the quicker Schmaltz can return the better.

2. Duncan Keith and Ryan Suter.

We've watched the Blackhawks score a ton of goals through four games this season, so let's focus on the defensive matchup this time, shall we?

Keith and Suter are the blue-line anchors for their respective teams, and are two of only a handful of defensemen who are capable of logging heavy minutes while getting better as the game goes on.

They've both gotten off to slow starts offensively, combining for two assists in six games, but that doesn't take away from how dangerous they are at both ends of the ice. They're the engines that make their defenses go.

3. Two potential Calder Trophy candidates.

Both the Blackhawks and Wild have exciting top prospects that have cracked the every-day lineup this season, and both of them have a chance to be in the mix for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.

Alex DeBrincat, who was taken by Chicago in the second round (No. 39 overall) of the 2016 draft, scored his first career goal in the NHL on Tuesday night and has three points in four games.

Joel Eriksson Ek, a first-round selection (No. 20 overall) in 2015 by Minnesota, has solidified his spot as the Wild's third-line center, and scored a goal in the team's season opener.

Expect these two rookies to at least be in the hunt of the rookie scoring race all season.

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

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USA TODAY

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

Jan Rutta was taking in every moment of his first NHL game on Thursday night, from the introductions to the Bryan Bickell ceremony to the raucous United Center crowd, which had plenty of reasons to be boisterous. That may sound like Rutta was distracted but it was actually the opposite.

“I mean, the fans are amazing and they fill us with so much energy,” Rutta said. “So it’s really good.”

For Rutta, it was the crowd. For Gustav Forsling, his partner in the Blackhawks’ season opener, it was offseason reading on mental skills. Be it Rutta’s transition from Europe to North America or Forsling’s need to improve in a sophomore season, whatever helps a young defenseman feel more comfortable you go with it. It worked for Game 1, anyway, when the duo came away with a combined outing that coach Joel Quenneville appreciated.

“Both of them were strong defensively,” Quenneville said. “They went to people quickly, I thought they had a really good gap and the involvement in our rush game and their patience with the puck on the point was great. Our defense as a group of six were really good as far as defense to offense and more involvement with our defense on the attack.”

[MORE: Showtime, baby: Blackhawks' second line was off-the-charts good in blowout win

The Blackhawks’ big question this season is defense, so nights like Thursday for Rutta and Forsling are encouraging. They’ll likely be playing again on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets – why the heck would you change anything out of a 10-1 victory? For Rutta, the move across the pond has been smooth. Same goes for the transition from preseason to Game 1 of the regular season.

“I played four preseason games and those teams, they played one, two, sometimes three lines of their normal teams. Getting to know the players – not that I didn’t know them. I know them from TV – but once you’re on the ice with them, it’s a little different,” Rutta said with a laugh. “It’s good to get to know the guys you play.”

Forsling, meanwhile has to jump off the levels he set last training camp. It was an excellent start but the Blackhawks needed more from him. That goes double this season but Forsling is feeling more confident about himself and his game – again, mental skills reading this summer.

“I just trust myself. I trust my abilities and I keep working every day,” Forsling said. “I learned a lot [last season] but I wasn’t really happy. I wanted more. So I’ll try to get that out of me this season.”

Quenneville likes Forsling’s approach.

“When you have confidence as a young defenseman, you seem to have way more patience of things developing and opening up and then you have confidence going into the puck area and trying to influence it and not that hesitation in your game,” he said. “When [Forsling] plays with more poise he gets to another level. He’s had a good camp and some really good days. And definitely his partner helps and does a lot of nice things with him.”

Who knows how long the Blackhawks’ defense is going to be a work in progress. There will probably be switches – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were together on Thursday but that likely won’t be long term. For Rutta and Forsling, getting as many opportunities as possible and utilizing whatever helps them feel better out there will help their development

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks host defending champion Penguins

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks host defending champion Penguins

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Blackhawks' season opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Red Carpet.

1. Three-headed showdown: Crosby-Malkin-Letang vs. Toews-Kane-Keith

A big reason why many hockey fans have been waiting for a Chicago-Pittsburgh Stanley Cup Final this decade is because of the star power both teams have and the big markets they play in. It starts with these six guys, all of whom will likely go into the Hockey Hall of Fame when their careers are all said and done. 

Among them, they have a combination of six Conn Smythe Trophy's, four Hart Trophy's and three Stanley Cups each. It's an amazing collection of hardware. It makes you appreciate the matchup even more when you factor in that they only meet twice a year.

And if we're lucky enough, maybe we'll get some 3-on-3 overtime so they can show off their world-class talents in the open ice.

2. Alex DeBrincat's NHL debut.

He's dominated in the Ontario Hockey League, he shined at the Traverse City prospect tournament and he looked great in preseason. Now it's time to see what the 5-foot-7, 165-pound winger can do at the highest level when the games actually count.

There's no question he has the ability and will to succeed in the NHL, but there will still be a learning curve along the way. What better way to get your feet wet than against the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions?

3. How will Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp fare in their official Chicago returns?

A pair of fan-favorites are back in Chicago, and were ultimately brought in for the same reason: help get the Blackhawks back to the top of the mountain.

Saad will look to rekindle his magic with Jonathan Toews on the top line and set the tone for the rest of the lineup, while Sharp can still play top-six minutes (if needed), contribute on the power play and be a veteran presence in the process as they look to bridge the gap with their younger players.

The United Center roof might explode after Saad and Sharp are both welcomed back with video board tributes.