Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks welcome Senators to town tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks welcome Senators to town tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on CSN and streaming live on 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. Friendly battle between Mike Condon and Scott Darling.

Back in 2014, Condon and Darling formed a bond at a beer-league camp that summer with Maple Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks, an Elmhurst native. They've run it together for three straight years now, and all three have become very close since. When the camp started, none of them had appeared in an NHL game yet, and they all connected by having to overcome difficult odds to do it. Now, Condon, who will make his seventh consecutive start, and Darling, who will start in his 10th straight game, will have the chance to square off against one another after taking advantages of their opportunities in Ottawa and Chicago with the starting goaltenders out. They've both come a long way, and it surely will be a memorable experience for them.

2. Artemi Panarin's chase in the scoring race.

Panarin was named the NHL's first star of the week after scoring three goals and adding seven assists in four games, helping the Blackhawks extend their winning streak to five games. He also stretched his point streak to five games, and upped his point total to 34 on the year, which is tied for third in the league with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jakub Voracek. He's pulled within six points of Connor McDavid for the league lead, making Panarin a darkhorse candidate to win the Art Ross Trophy, an award Patrick Kane took home last season.

3. Erik Karlsson.

The 26-year-old Swedish defenseman had one of the best seasons by a blue liner in NHL history last year, but not many noticed because he played on a non-playoff team. He had 82 points in 82 games, and was a puck possession machine. This year, he's almost at a point-per-game pace with 30 points in 32 games, which leads the team. His skating ability is mesmerizing to watch, and get used to seeing him on the ic a lot. He averages the second-most shifts in the league (32.6) and third-most ice time per game (26:57).

4. How will lines be affected with potential return of Artem Anisimov?

Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza didn't have the best possession numbers in Sunday's 4-1 win over San Jose, but both of them made a big impact on the scoresheet at a crucial moment with each potting a goal and an assist in the third period. Hinostroza did a fine job centering that second line, but if Anisimov, who's listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury, is cleared to play, expect Hinostroza to be bumped back to the fourth line with Tyler Motte and either Andrew Desjardins or Jordin Tootoo.

5. Watch out for flying bodies.

The Senators are not afraid to throw their bodies around. They rank second in the league with 847 hits and have blocked 564 shots this season, which ranks third-most. The Blackhawks are the complete opposite in that department, recording the second-fewests hits with 514. It might get physical, but don't expect the Blackhawks to retaliate much.

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Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching


Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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