The top storyline heading into the first game back from the Olympics – not just for the Rangers and Blackhawks, but every team in the league – is how quickly the Olympians will get over the travel, time changes and competitive play from the past two weeks. The Blackhawks and Rangers had a combined 17 Olympians between them, and 13 of them went all the way to the tournament’s final weekend. The decisive factors could be which group’s Olympians recover their stamina faster, and which role players can step up until they do.
Despite a recent dip in form, Rangers goaltender Cam Talbot has been one of the league’s best rookies this year. His stellar play and sparkling stat line has given Head Coach Alain Vigneault opportunities to spell star netminder Henrik Lundqvist, and behind a stout defense, Talbot won nine of his first 12 decisions. Come Thursday night, Talbot, whom Vigneault named starter for the contest, will see his first game action since Feb. 6, a 2-1 loss to Edmonton. Talbot has been used very sparingly since Jan. 1, seeing only four starts in that time, going 2-2-0 while allowing six goals in his last two starts.
Since the Blackhawks’ acquisition of Peter Regin on Feb. 6, it has been assumed that Head Coach Joel Quenneville would at least try to use the 27-year-old center on the second line next to Patrick Kane, giving Kane an offensive running mate who could also hold his own on defense. With Kane on personal leave during Feb. 7’s game in Phoenix – Regin’s only Blackhawks contest – Thursday will mark the first time to try out this new arrangement. It remains to be seen whether this is a role Regin can fill long-term, but if he and Kane can find chemistry at even strength, Kane’s all-world playmaking ability should be able to do the heavy lifting.
When the Rangers disbanded earlier this month, the team’s penalty kill had slipped a bit; in their three games preceding the Olympic break, they had allowed three power-play goals in nine chances. When they’re on their game, New York can be a shutdown defensive group; they’ll need to be, especially with Chicago's talented power-play unit invading Madison Square Garden.
Thursday will be the Blackhawks’ final game before the Stadium Series contest against Pittsburgh; while the occasion is certainly special, and the opponent is one of the league’s best, it will be important for Chicago to focus on the task at hand before looking ahead to Saturday. Two points is two points, and too important to concede without a fight.
The Blackhawks’ first trip to MSG since Feb. 16, 2012, will be an interesting test; Chicago was edged out 3-2 at home by the Rangers in January, but won 56 percent of their faceoffs and fired 37 shots at Lundqvist in the loss. The game plan remains the same: Keep control of the puck, get plenty of shots on goal and make the Rangers’ team defense and Talbot stop you. However, in some respects, the game may simply be decided by whose legs are fresher and which role players supplement their stars’ production better. Either way, it will be a great tune-up before the Stadium Series game on Saturday.