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Blackhawks Buzz: Chicago faces Calgary in final home tilt before Circus Trip

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. FANNING THE FLAMES

The Blackhawks return home after overtaking the Blues 4-2 in St. Louis to face the Calgary Flames for the first time this season. The Flames haven't been able to parlay their surprise 2015 postseason appearance into success in 2015-16, currently occupying the sixth spot in the Pacific Division. Part of the problem is lack of depth on both offense and defense; only the top six forwards have provided meaningful contributions, while an injury to T.J. Brodie and early struggles for prized offseason acquisition Dougie Hamilton have hampered the blue line's efficacy. Still, there's enough speed and skill at the top end of the Flames roster to trouble opponents, and the Blackhawks can't take the visitors lightly on Sunday, especially after an emotionally charged 60 minutes on Saturday night. Calgary is coming off a 3-2 overtime win on Friday in Washington, hanging tight with one of the Eastern Conference's best teams for most of the contest.

2. MON OF THE HOUR

Sean Monahan tallied his fifth and sixth goals of the season against the Capitals on Friday—including the overtime game-winner—and now leads the Flames with six on the season. The 21-year-old now has four goals, five points and 15 shots on goal in his last four games, and his line with last year's breakout rookie, Johnny Gaudreau, and veteran Jiri Hudler has been Calgary's main driving force early this season. Monahan has been one of the league's best young forwards since entering the NHL as an 18-year-old his draft season, compiling 109 points in 174 games already, and as a third-year player he is averaging over 20 minutes every night for a team that's counting on its young stars to take a big step forward and prove that last season's run was a building block and not a fluke.

3. SECOND WAVE

While the Gaudreau line has put up the best numbers for Calgary, the second line of Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett and former Blackhawk Michael Frolik has been the team's best in terms of possession numbers, and the Blackhawks will need to contend with both sets of players. The Flames' second line is the only trio to break the 50 percent mark at even strength, and they've done so while facing slightly weaker competition than the Gaudreau line, but not enjoying nearly as many offensive zone starts. Bennett, the fourth-overall pick in 2014, posted just one assist in his first eight games, but has surged back with 10 points (4G, 6A) in the nine games since. Backlund has six points in his last five games, and Frolik is versatile enough to provide support in the offensive zone as well as backchecking ability.

4. DEEP BLUE

The Blackhawks were hoping that the return of Duncan Keith and Michal Rozsival against St. Louis would provide more stability on the back end. Rozsival held his own in his first action since May, playing 13:20, including some time on the penalty kill, but Keith was back to his usual dominant form. The 2015 Conn Smythe winner logged 27:34, a season high, and assisted on Andrew Shaw's opening goal with a slapshot from the high slot. While Brent Seabrook was the primary point-getter among defensemen in Keith's absence, other blueliners stepped up on Saturday: Trevor van Riemsdyk netted his second of the season to tie the game at 2-2, while Niklas Hjalmarsson picked up his third helper of the year. Head Coach Joel Quenneville confirmed that both Keith and Rozsival should be able to play against Calgary on Sunday.

5. CAGE MATCH

Goaltending was a big reason why Calgary was able to overcome terrible possession numbers and make the playoffs last season, but they haven't seen the same results in net so far in 2015-16. Jonas Hiller, who posted a 26-19-4 record and .918 save percentage in his first campaign with Calgary, wasn't playing his best before sustaining an injury in late October, and Karri Ramo has not been able to right the ship in Hiller's absence. Calgary has a league-worst save percentage of .888 at even strength, which does not bode well for the Flames' outlook if they can't find consistency in net. Sunday's game is also a chance for Chicago's backup to get on the right track, as Scott Darling has won just one game in three starts this season. With Corey Crawford making 29 saves in St. Louis, it's likely that the 26-year-old will get the start against Calgary.

The Blackhawks have a great opportunity to follow up their second road win of the season with a strong showing against a young and upcoming team in Calgary. The Flames have speed throughout their lineup, especially among their young forwards, and the reunited defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is one of the best in the Western Conference. If Chicago can break through early and keep the Flames on the back foot in their own zone, it would certainly help take pressure off players like Keith and Rozsival who are playing their second game in two nights after long injury layoffs. Gaining two points with a solid performance on Sunday would be the perfect way for the Blackhawks to bid the United Center farewell as they set off on their annual Circus Trip next week.

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