Alex DeBrincat

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.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-1 bounce-back win over Canadiens

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-1 bounce-back win over Canadiens

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night:

1. Salvaging a slow start.

The Blackhawks have dominated the first period through three games this season, having outscored their opponents 9-0 in the opening frame entering Tuesday's game. They got off to their worst start of the year in this one though, allowing the Canadiens to strike first just 1:15 into the contest and were outshot 14-2 halfway through the period.

But the Blackhawks salvaged their slow start by scoring two goals in 19 seconds towards the latter stages of the period, and took a lead into the second for the fourth straight game.

2. Alex DeBrincat scores his first of many goals in the NHL.

We teased the possibility of it in our Three Things to Watch, but the Blackhawks' top prospect is officially on the board. The 19-year-old winger snapped a three-game goal drought to open the season by blasting one past arguably the league's best goaltender in Carey Price for his first career tally.

On the play, DeBrincat received a short pass from Patrick Sharp, adjusted his body quickly to get into a shooting position and slapped it home from one of his main sweet spots. He also registered an assist later in the game for his first multi-point effort of his career.

Side note: DeBrincat committed a third-period turnover that led to a breakaway, but his strong backcheck helped disrupt the shot. That's something coaches will certainly appreciate when looking back at the tape.

3. Corey Crawford continues domination against hometown team.

For the second straight game, the Blackhawks perhaps got bailed out by great goaltendering. The Montreal native was outstanding in his hometown return, and he had to be from the very beginning.

The Canadiens peppered the Blackhawks with 14 shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the game, and finished the contest with a season-high 42 of them. Crawford stopped all but one of them in the win, and improved to 8-0-2 with a 1.49 goals against average and .954 save percentage in 10 career games against Montreal.

The most important save of the game came on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period, which happened shortly before the Blackhawks scored on the power play to take a 3-1 lead. The score wouldn't change the rest of the way.

Crawford has now allowed only one goal in each of his first three games, and increased his season save percentage to .971. A darkhorse Vezina Trophy candidate? 

4. Penalty kill steps up.

Crawford was the biggest reason the Blackhawks won, but the penalty kill unit is a close second. They were a perfect 5-for-5 in that department against a team still searching for its first power play goal of the season.

Early in the first, the Blackhawks killed off a 5-on-3 penalty that could've changed the complexion of the game but their unit stood tall.

Tanner Kero and Tommy Wingels were very noticeable in their own ends, combining for four blocked shots and breaking up a handful of plays with active sticks. It was an all around great effort.

5. Cody Franson's debut could've been better.

Connor Murphy was a health scratch in only his fourth game with the Blackhawks, but it was likely more about getting another defenseman some reps on the second of a back-to-back rather than his on-ice play. And with the Gustav Forsling-Jan Rutta pairing shining and Franson being a right-handed shot, it makes sense why Murphy was taken out instead of the left-handed shot Michal Kempny.

As far of Franson's debut went, it wasn't bad but it wasn't great. He committed a pair of penalties (tripping and slashing) but it didn't cost his team thanks to the penalty kill coming through in the clutch, as we mentioned above.

Franson finished the game with 16:41 of ice time, recorded an assist on Anisimov's goal, and had four shot attempts (two on goal).

Don't expect first-game jitters from Blackhawks rookie Alex DeBrincat

Don't expect first-game jitters from Blackhawks rookie Alex DeBrincat

That first NHL game. Some players get just a few minutes’ worth of ice time in it. Some score their first goal. But no matter how that first game goes, all players seemed to have the same feeling entering it: nervousness.

“It didn’t kick in until going out there for warmups. Skating around and that 15-20 minutes between warmups, that was pretty nerve-wracking,” said Ryan Hartman, who made his debut against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 13, 2014. “It’s just really wanting to get out there and get the nerves out was my focus. Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again.”

So will that be the same for Alex DeBrincat, one of two Blackhawks (along with defenseman Jan Rutta) who will make his NHL debut tonight? Maybe. But at least two members of the Blackhawks think the 19-year-old will handle his first NHL game as effortlessly as he handled everything this preseason.

Many eyes will be on DeBrincat when he and the Blackhawks face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. After starting camp with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane, DeBrincat is expected to start at third-line right wing (with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Sharp) tonight. Sharp, who made his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers at age 20, doesn’t see DeBrincat suffering from nerves too much.

“It looks like he’s playing junior hockey out there, and that’s a compliment,” Sharp said. “He’s confident with the puck, not deferring to any of his teammates or line mates just because they’re older or more experienced. He’s making the right plays. We saw it all through camp. There’s a bit of a jump, it’s Game 1, but I don’t anticipate any problems with Alex.”

Be it rookies or young players, a few current/former Blackhawks have gotten caught up in deferring to veteran line mates. Teuvo Teravainen showed hesitation when first aligned with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa two seasons ago. Hartman admitted it took him a few games to stop automatically doing the same thing. So far DeBrincat hasn’t shown much of that hesitation.

“Watching him the preseason games he looks pretty comfortable out there. He wants the puck and does a lot of good things when he gets it,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “It’s a great beginning for him and our organization. We’re looking forward to seeing how he handles it and we’re thinking he’ll be fine.”

If there are any nerves, players who have been there, done that before had advice.

“Just go out there and do something to try and make it seem like it’s hockey again. Just make plays,” Hartman said. “I know from experience, being a young guy, being your first time playing, you’re just trying not to make mistakes, trying not to mess up plays and trying to be responsible. But sometimes that hinders your skill level and some of the aspects of your game. Just go out there and play to your strengths and take it like it’s another hockey game.”