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Blackhawks Buzz: Going for 10 in Toronto

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


1. TOR DE FORCE

A day after a narrow 2-1 win in Montreal that gave Joel Quenneville sole possession of second place in the all-time NHL wins list, the Blackhawks arrive in Toronto in search of their 10th consecutive victory. They'll face the Maple Leafs, who were last in action on Wednesday when they dropped a 3-1 decision to the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets despite outshooting them 42-22. Toronto has scored just twice over a three-game losing streak, and in worse news, top-line winger James van Riemsdyk is slated to miss the next 6-8 weeks with a fractured foot, meaning the low-scoring Leafs will need to find a way to replace his 14 goals and 15 assists. Under new head coach Mike Babcock, Toronto has fared much better in the possession game, but uncertainties in goal earlier in the season—due to an injury to James Reimer and a poor stretch from Jonathan Bernier—have left them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

2. DOT KOM BOOM

A season after posting 26 points in 62 games, forward Leo Komarov has already surpassed that total with 29 through the first half of the year, emerging as a pleasant surprise for the Leafs despite not being one of the more recognizable names on the roster. The 2006 sixth-round pick assisted on Toronto's only goal in Tuesday's loss while leading forwards with 21:21 of ice time and playing in all situations, and his steady contributions landed him an All-Star Game nod later this month in Nashville. In van Riemsdyk's absence, Komarov—along with linemates Nazem Kadri and Michael Grabner—will be counted upon heavily to shoulder the offensive burden, so look for Babcock to get that line out in favorable matchups on Friday.

3. CAPTAIN'S LOG

After a relatively slow start to the season, Jonathan Toews has been getting on the scoresheet on a regular basis since Dec. 17, accruing 16 points (8G, 8G) over his last 14 games. The captain opened the scoring against Montreal with his 16th goal of the season and passing former linemate Patrick Sharp on the franchise's all-time goals list with 240 as a Blackhawk. His line with Andrew Shaw and Marian Hossa have been instrumental to the Blackhawks' nine-game win streak, combining for 10 goals and often dictating play against the opponents' top lines. In nearly 105 even-strength minutes together as a trio, they've posted a 57.3 shots for percentage, the best possession numbers among the four lines (stat ref). On Thursday against the Canadiens, they combined for 10 shots on goal and 15 attempts, and Chicago will need their top line to continue setting the pace if they are to extend their win streak to double digits.

4. REIM AND REASON

Despite a record of 7-6-4, James Reimer has kept Toronto in games for the most part this season, when he's been healthy. He has yet to record a win since returning from injury in late December, but has made 58 saves on 62 shots in two starts. The 27-year-old currently sports a league-best .936 save percentage and an even better adjusted save percentage of .951 (which measures even-strength play while taking score effects into account). Astoundingly, he's allowed more than two goals in a game just once in his last 13 starts dating back to Nov. 4. A major strength for Reimer this season has been his ability to make stops on high-danger scoring chances: According to war-on-ice.com, he's seen nearly a 9 percent improvement on close-range shots from 2014-15 as well as a 5 percent improvement on medium-range shots. For the Blackhawks, getting a high quantity of shots off might not be enough to beat Reimer if he's playing at his best—they'll need to get traffic in front as well.

5. ON THE FLY

The Blackhawks have weathered some last-minute snaggles to prevail in their last two outings, but with that has come silver linings. On Tuesday against Nashville, Artem Anisimov was a late scratch due to illness, which resulted in Richard Panik's debut with the team. In Montreal, Panik remained, and the fourth line combined for the eventual game-winner midway late in the first period on a quick shot by Ryan Garbutt that gave Panik his first point with Chicago. There were also adjustments made on the blue line, as Erik Gustafsson—who has been somewhat of a revelation in his first NHL campaign—left Thursday's morning skate and remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury. As a result, Rob Scuderi and Michal Rozsival (who notched the other assist on Garbutt's game-winner) could each play both games of the back-to-back, something the coaching staff will undoubtedly monitor as Friday's contest progresses.

THE FINAL WORD

Toronto certainly has played much better under Babcock's guidance this season, although the departure of Phil Kessel has left a scoring void that has only been exacerbated by van Riemsdyk's injury. Although no longer stacked, there's enough talent on the Leafs' top two lines to make life hard for opponents each night, but Chicago is one team that is fully capable of countering with depth scoring throughout the lineup. After another sparkling win by Corey Crawford, Scott Darling will likely get the start and try to claim his third straight win. Two more points against a struggling Eastern Conference team will allow the Blackhawks to maintain pressure on the Dallas Stars, who have stumbled just enough this month to loosen their grip on the division and conference lead.

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