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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Rangers tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Rangers tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the New York Rangers tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Best in the West vs. best in the East?

The Blackhawks and Rangers square off tonight as two of the best teams in the league, with each at or near the top of their respective conferences in the standings. The Rangers are two points away from first place in the East, but own the best goal differential of any team at plus-29. The Blackhawks sit atop the West with 37 points and have the second-best goal differential in the West at plus-10. Still a long, long way to go, but perhaps an early Stanley Cup Final preview?

2. Four stars sidelined.

The Blackhawks are already without Corey Crawford and Jonathan Toews due to injuries, and now Brent Seabrook has been added to the list. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they have a surplus of defensemen and won't have a problem finding a guy prepared to step in. But Seabrook is irreplaceable on and off the ice, and he's been really good on it this season. For the Rangers, Rick Nash is out with a groin injury while Jimmy Vesey was scratched last night due to an upper-body injury, making his status unknown for tonight. Lots of firepower will be watching the game from the press box.

3. Jimmy Vesey.

Speaking of Vesey, the Blackhawks went all-out for the reigning Hobey Baker Award as college's top player in the offseason by including Patrick Kane in their recruiting pitch. Vesey's decision reportedly came down to the Blackhawks and Rangers — and it sounded like Chicago was the frontrunner — but he ended up choosing to stay closer to home by picking New York. He's made an immediate impact, scoring nine goals and adding seven assists in 27 games. Three of those goals have been game-winners. If he plays (he's battling an upper-body injury, as mentioned above), it will be interesting to see the reception he gets from the United Center crowd when he steps onto the ice — although it's possible he doesn't get one at all. 

4. Scott Darling vs. Antti Raanta.

Former Blackhawks netminder Antti Raanta has been sensational for the Rangers this season, owning a 6-1-0 record with a 2.05 goals against average and .932 save percentage. He's going to get his second straight start, and will do so at the United Center, where he has a lifetime record of 14-0-3 and a .942 save percentage. It will be his first start against his former team since being traded to New York in June 2015, and he'll do it against Darling, who he lost his backup job to during that year that ended in a Stanley Cup. The last time — and only time — Darling faced the Rangers, he earned his first career NHL shutout when he stopped all 25 shots en route to a 1-0 victory in March 2015. It will surely be a fun matchup to watch.

5. Limit quality chances.

The Rangers have been a dangerous team offensively this season, scoring the most goals of any team with 99. That's good for 3.54 goals per game. They've been successful in that area because of the contributions they're getting from up and down the lineup, highlighted by Michael Grabner's team-leading 13 goals. The Rangers average only 28.4 shots per game, which ranks fifth-worst, but their shooting percentage at even strength is far and away the best in the league at an astonishing 11.39. Watch out for those quality shots.

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Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner tandem proving to be exactly what Blackhawks envisioned

lehner_crawford_ap.jpg
AP

Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner tandem proving to be exactly what Blackhawks envisioned

LAS VEGAS — The first day of NHL free agency is always exciting for hockey fans, particularly the first hour when most of the moves are announced at a rapid rate. Last offseason, the Blackhawks had a quiet few hours before dropping the hammer on the most surprising signing of the day, Robin Lehner, to a one-year deal.

“I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now,” GM Stan Bowman said on July 1. “I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net.”

So does the entire city of Chicago.

More than one month into the 2019-20 season, the goaltending tandem between Crawford and Lehner is exactly what the Blackhawks envisioned it would be. That’s what happens when you pair a Vezina Trophy finalist with a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

"We got two guys who are outstanding," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "I think they're both going real well now and that's a huge advantage for us no matter who's in the net, we're getting a chance to win. It gives our guys a chance to come through offensively, so they've been big for us."

After starting the season 1-4-0 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .888 percentage, Crawford has been lights out since the calendar flipped to November. He’s 2-0-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in his last four starts, which includes a 39-save performance in a 5-3 win over the Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Lehner has been one of the league’s best from the beginning. His .934 save percentage ranks second among goaltenders with at least six appearances and his goals saved above average at 5-on-5 ranks fourth-best, according to Natural Stat Trick. Crawford's goals saved above average of 4.21 puts him at ninth.

And this is despite the fact the Blackhawks are giving up the most shots on goal per game (37.1), second-most high danger chances per 60 minutes at even strength (13.1) and third-most scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength (29.2).

While the dynamic may have been awkward at first, both goaltenders appear to be making the best of the circumstances and view it as healthy competition.

"I mean, he's doing a great job," Crawford said of Lehner. "Definitely keeping us in games or being a big factor in some wins. I think both of us are just trying to be at our best when we get the chance."

The challenging part of the situation is getting both guys a fair amount of starts. Crawford has been vocal about preferring to start regularly — “it’s a little bit easier when you keep playing games in a row” — and Lehner no doubt feels the same.

"They both want to play 60 games, 80 games maybe,” Colliton said. “That's part of the team. [Patrick Kane] wants to play 60 minutes. It's how it is. Ultimately, we want to make decisions that help the team win and part of that is keeping both guys fresh, keeping both guys playing at a high level and I think that's going to be a benefit for us as the season goes on."

It’s a good problem to have if you’re the Blackhawks, especially if Crawford and Lehner are at the top of their games at the same time like they are right now.

"It's great," Calvin de Haan said. "I think goaltending's the most important position. If you're not keeping the puck out of the net, you're not going to win a lot of games. But those guys are giving us a chance every night and it's really evident the past few weeks here."

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks overcome two-goal deficit to beat Golden Knights for first time

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USA Today

Four takeaways: Blackhawks overcome two-goal deficit to beat Golden Knights for first time

LAS VEGAS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday:

1. Blackhawks beat Golden Knights for first time ever

The Blackhawks entered this matchup the only team that hadn't beaten the Golden Knights since they entered the NHL in the 2017-18 season. They were 0-5-2 in the first seven games against them, despite having plenty of opportunities to beat them. As recently as Oct. 22, the Blackhawks were 1:33 away from shutting out Vegas before eventually falling in a shootout.

Despite giving up the first two goals, the Blackhawks rallied to score five straight and hung on for their first victory against the Golden Knights. They also won back-to-back games for the first time this season and improved to 3-0-1 in their last four games.

"It's good for the guys, good confidence boost," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "A reminder that we're trending the right way. By no means are we perfect. We got lots of work to do but that's a good team and they're going to be a top team this year, no question, and we took two points in their barn."

2. Wild end-to-end action

The Blackhawks know that their new schematic change will make for some entertaining hockey games. It will be high risk, high reward and fast-paced. And that's exactly what Wednesday was: a track meet between two teams that like to play quick.

The Blackhawks and Golden Knights combined for 116 shot attempts, 68 shots on goal, 59 total scoring chances, 36 high-danger chances (according to Natural Stat Trick) and eight goals. Each team also had a penalty shot, but Zack Smith rang his shot off the crossbar 44 seconds into the game, and Jonathan Marchessault missed on his in the second period.

"Tonight was kind of a track meet," Calvin de Haan said. "We were taking a lot of odd-man rushes here and there, but we were creating a ton at the same time. Obviously we just out-capitalized them. These guys play hard at home and we weathered their storm. It was a fun game to play overall, but there's some things we can clean up. But we got the two points and it's about wins and losses."

3. Blackhawks score five in a row

After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in each of their previous three games, the Blackhawks found themselves on the other side of that on Wednesday, with the Golden Knights striking twice in the opening 6:29.

But it didn't faze the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane responded 16 seconds after the Golden Knights went up by two with a goal in his fourth consecutive game, and his team later scored the next four. 

Kane (one goal, two assists) and Dylan Strome (one goal, two assists) each had three-point outings while Kirby Dach (one goal, one assist), Alex DeBrincat (two assists) and Zack Smith (two assists) also had multi-point efforts. It was a huge character win for the Blackhawks.

"That was big," Colliton said of rallying from a two-goal deficit. "Because I thought we were close early. ... We had a decent beginning of the game and we're down 2-0. Maybe five games ago that could have gone south on us but I really liked how we responded."

4. An entertaining goaltending battle between two of the best

When they're both on, Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury are two of the top goaltenders in the league. And their talents were on full display on national television Wednesday night.

Crawford faced 21 high-danger chances and stopped 39 of 42 shots for a save percentage of .929. Fleury was solid also even though the numbers don’t show it, facing 15 high-danger chances and giving up five goals on 26 shots for a save percentage of .808.

The final score was 5-3, but it could've been much higher if it weren't for the two of them matching high quality save after high quality save throughout the game.

"It was a fast game," Crawford said. "They’re a really good hockey team. I think they lost a few before tonight, so obviously they were gonna be hungry. Seems like they always come out hard in the first period there. But we didn’t fold. We just kept playing. This offense is so good that, we get a little sniff and we’re still in the game. ... It was a fun hockey game."

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