The Blackhawks begin their second back-to-back of the season on Friday with a tilt in Columbus. The two teams last met on the final day of the 2015-16 regular season, when the Blue Jackets recovered from a 3-0 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime. Although the team finished 27th in the league, there's reason to be optimistic, due to the infusion of youth and talent on the team-four members of their Calder Cup-winning AHL team from last season are with Columbus to start the year. There's also reason to believe goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, a former Vezina Trophy winner, can return to form after starring for Team Russia at the World Cup of Hockey in September.
The Blue Jackets began the current campaign with losses against Boston and San Jose at home, but have not been in action since last Saturday. Chicago emerged with a wild 7-4 win over Philadelphia on Tuesday, squandering a 4-0 lead before surging in the third period, and are now 2-2-0 this season. The penalty kill is still a concern, having allowed nine goals on 17 shorthanded stints through the first four games, but the Blackhawks were able to prevent one in a crucial situation after retaking the lead against the Flyers, and Head Coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged the "baby steps" his team has taken from game to game in this young season.
YOUTH IS SERVED
Columbus head coach John Tortorella said before this season that he wanted his defensemen to join the play and be aggressive in the offensive zone, and that's more than possible with his young, mobile blue line, which boasts four defensemen aged 23 and younger. Seth Jones, 22, leads the team with 24:47 of ice time per game, mostly at even strength and while shorthanded. Columbus has put a lot of responsibility on the former fourth-overall pick after acquiring him from Nashville last season (for center Ryan Johansen), and he's expected to have a big year in his fourth full NHL campaign.
While Jones is the anchor of Columbus' blue line, it's 2015 eighth-overall pick Zach Werenski who has grabbed headlines with his play early in his rookie year, after spending last season as a standout at the University of Michigan and with the AHL's Cleveland Monsters. Skating alongside Jones, the 19-year-old has shown a strong combination of skating and playmaking, and he's already playing a starring role on the Blue Jackets power play while skating 21:55 per game.
Also in the mix are Ryan Murray, who played with Jones on Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, rookie Markus Nutivaara (2015 seventh-rounder) and veterans Jack Johnson and David Savard.
With the game tied 4-4 on Tuesday, the Blackhawks' second line sprung to life. Artem Anisimov scored at 10:24, Panarin added an insurance goal at 16:03, and Anisimov sealed the deal with an empty-netter for his fourth point of the night, tying a single-game career high. While Quenneville flirted with splitting up last season's most productive trio to start the season, the chemistry they've shown-as well as the on-ice results-is making that decision harder, especially in close games.
"Those guys can do so many good things with each other as far as anticipate, protect the puck, make plays, strip pucks and turning it into something special," Quenneville said. "Big difference to our team game when the production is there from them."
The departure of Johansen, Columbus' top center, opened up opportunities for several young centers on the Blue Jackets depth chart, chief among them Alexander Wennberg. The 2013 first-rounder finished last season with 40 points in 69 regular-season games, including a team-best 32 helpers, and has a goal and two assists in two tilts so far this year. Wennberg is currently centering the second line, which features team captain Nick Foligno and former Blackhawk Brandon Saad, a 30-goal-scorer last season; he also plays top power-play minutes and is expected to be one of the team's best setup men once again.
Marian Hossa has rightfully been feted by the hockey world over the last two days after scoring his 500th career NHL goal on Tuesday. Head Coach Joel Quenneville said after the game: "It's a tremendous accomplishment, tremendous career. He's got some offensive numbers that really are great to look at.... It's nice to see him make that accomplishment tonight." Patrick Kane added: "What an amazing career-500 goals, what more can you say about that?"
The only damper to Hossa's night was the injury he sustained in the third period that ended his night early. The 37-year-old did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday and was ruled out for the Columbus game. However, the Blackhawks are getting forward Ryan Hartman back from injury, and he will most likely replace Hossa on the third line alongside Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza.
BLUE LINE SWAP
Quenneville is spinning the defensive carousel for Friday's contest, with Trevor van Riemsdyk likely to draw in for Brian Campbell on the third pairing alongside Gustav Forsling. Van Riemsdyk led the team in blocked shots last season with 155, and his inclusion could shore up Chicago's PK; he could also see time on the second power-play unit with Forsling, adding a right-handed shot to the mix.
Video: TVR on potentially returning to the lineup
MORNING SKATE UPDATE
Per Quenneville, both Campbell and van Riemsdyk will play in Columbus. Whether Forsling or another defenseman will sit out remains to be seen, but a Campbell-van Riemsdyk pairing would allow both players to play on their natural sides.
CHI: Marian Hossa (lower body), Andrew Desjardins (lower body)
Motte -- Toews -- Panik
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Kane
Campbell -- Schmaltz -- Hartman
Rasmussen -- Kruger -- Tootoo
Keith -- Hjalmarsson
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- van Riemsdyk