Season series -- This is the first of two games this season for Chicago and Florida. They haven't faced each other since they split the first two games of the 2009-10 campaign at the NHL's 2009 Premiere event in Helsinki, Finland.
Big story -- The Blackhawks are starting to look like a championship contender again just a few days before they'll be feted like one. The Hawks will be honored at the White House Friday for their 2010 Stanley Cup title, and Tuesday they'll have a championship reunion of sorts when they face off with the Panthers, who are currently run by Dale Tallon, who spent several seasons building Chicago into a winner as its general manager.
Blackhawks -- Chicago just might be the hottest team in the League west of the Appallachians. The Blackhawks spent most of this season teetering on the brink of missing a chance to defend their Cup this postseason, but thanks to an eight-game winning streak, the Hawks are not just rocketing well into the West's top eight, they're suddenly just six points behind first-place Detroit in the Central Division.
It would be particularly impressive if the Blackhawks could keep that run going over their current four-game road trip, which still has stops in Tampa Bay and Washington after Tuesday's visit to Sunrise, Fla. Chicago certainly hasn't shown signs of slowing down. The Blackhawks have scored 20 goals in their last four goals, with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who have a combined 26 points in the last nine games, leading the way. Corey Crawford hasn't been too bad in net either, winning his last eight starts with a 2.33 goals-against average in that stretch.
Panthers -- While Tallon's major role in Chicago's Stanley Cup title is literally engraved in silver -- the Hawks awarded him a ring and included him on the Cup even though he was let go before the season -- he said Monday that he would not be attending the Blackhawks' day at the White House Friday noting, "I'm a Republican anyway." Opinions on President Obama aside, however, Tallon appears to have his hands full with his new job in Florida. The Panthers have lost five straight games, dropping them to 13th in the Eastern Conference and more or less out of playoff contention.
That is partially Tallon's doing, of course. In order to get the rebuilding process underway, Tallon was particularly active at the trade deadline clearing house and acquiring cap space and draft picks aplenty to lay the groundwork for a strong future on South Beach. That won't do much to turn around a sinking ship in Florida this season, but rather than treading the waters of mediocrity as they did for the last decade, Tallon's moves may finally have set up the Panthers a brighter future.
Who's hot -- While Chicago's two young guns both seem to be getting hot at the right time, Marian Hossa, who has been prone to streakiness this season, also seems to have heated up, picking up 11 points over his current seven-game scoring streak. ... Despite Florida's downward spiral, Stephen Weiss continues to be productive, notching four points in the last four games.
Injury report -- The most pressing issue for Chicago Monday was the concern over Duncan Keith's unspecified finger injury, but the reigning Norris Trophy winner is expected to play. ... Florida may be without Alexander Sulzer, who is listed as questionable for undisclosed reasons. As well, former Blackhawk Jack Skille will be missing a potential reunion as he remains on IR with a high ankle sprain.
Stat pack -- Toews looks like a good bet to break his career high for points in a season this month -- his current total of 65 is just 4 points shy of his best mark two seasons ago -- but what he's done lately has been even more impressive this his campaign at large. Toews' pace over the past nine games would translate to 136 points over a full season, nearly twice his career best.
Puck drop -- To say Chicago and Florida are going in opposite directions would be an understatement, but with the Hawks' place in the West playoff bracket still not assured, any slip-ups could have a devastating effect. While the Panthers may already have started looking towards next season, a win over the defending champions wouldn't be a bad way to get the 2011-12 campaign started. In fact, it could serve as a solid jumping off point for Tallon to do in Florida what he did in Chicago.