1. BUFFALO ROAM
Friday's matchup between Chicago and Buffalo will feature teams trending in opposite directions. The Blackhawks have won five in a row, marking their most successful stretch of the season, including back-to-back victories over the Pittsburgh Penguins.The Sabres, on the other hand, enter the United Center in hopes of snapping a five-game losing streak, and they have just one win since the last time the two sides met, when Chicago emerged from Buffalo with a 3-2 shootout victory on Dec. 19. The visitors will have a tall task on Friday, however, as they haven't won in Chicago since 2007. With Buffalo's recent slide, the club's record dropped to 15-21-4, second-last in the league. Although the team has improved their possession game from last season, they're still struggling to score goals, ranking 28th in the league in goals (92) and 26th in even-strength tallies (55).
2. EICHEL TOWER
As many expected entering the 2015-16 campaign, rookie Jack Eichel has not looked out of place in the NHL, but it's not until recently that he's started to consistently produce points. The 19-year-old really hit his stride in mid-December; since then he's collected 12 points in eight games, highlighted by a four-point night in front of a hometown crowd in Boston on Dec. 26. Eichel's 26 points this season share second on the team and rank fourth among league rookies, and he leads the pack with 131 shots on goal while skating 19 minutes per game, most among first-year forwards. With injuries depleting the Sabres roster in recent weeks, Eichel is now anchoring the second line alongside Jamie McGinn and Zemgus Girgensons, with the wingers establishing a physical forecheck and creating room for Eichel to make plays and get shots through to the net.
Of course, the rookie that everyone else is trailing is Chicago's Artemi Panarin, who almost single-handedly dispatched the Pittsburgh Penguins with four goals in two nights, most of them showcasing his incredible quick release and ability to find openings in the net with accuracy. The 24-year-old now leads the first-year scoring race by 10 points and has 38 in 42 games, and he has seven points in his last five contests. He ranks second behind Eichel with 18:56 of ice time per game and third with 101 shots on goal. Panarin has seemingly been the first name in Calder Trophy discussions all season long, and Friday's tilt will be another opportunity to see the two dynamic rookies go head to head.
4. TAKING THE REINS
Buffalo's youth movement features another notable name: 20-year-old Sam Reinhart, who has been a staple on the top line for much of the campaign, skating with Ryan O'Reilly and now Evander Kane. In nearly 110 minutes together at even strength, the trio is controlling nearly 60 percent of shots (stat ref), which means they're spending a lot of time in their opponents' zone and creating opportunities through strong play at both ends of the ice. Reinhart, the second-overall pick in 2014, had an assist in the first matchup against Chicago this season. He's one goal away from hitting double digits, and although his numbers aren't flashy, he's contributing at the right times, leading the team with three game-winners.
5. CAGE MATCH
Friday's tilt should feature a goaltending matchup of Corey Crawford and Chad Johnson, who have both been valuable this season. Crawford was seen by many as an All-Star Game snub after a remarkable first half of the season: He paces the league with six shutouts and ranks third with 33 starts and 21 wins, fourth with 894 total saves, and sixth with a .925 save percentage (min. 20 GS). While Buffalo's 29-year-old journeyman is less-heralded than most of his peers, Johnson has nevertheless played a crucial role for the Sabres, filling in admirably for starter Robin Lehner who went down with a knee injury in their season opener. Johnson, who has never made more than 27 appearances in an NHL season, has a .914 SV% in 22 starts. He's dropped his last two decisions, however, and if the Sabres are to get back into the win column, they may need a superb effort from the man between the pipes on Friday.
THE FINAL WORD
Despite their record, the Sabres are playing for the future, and their season has been defined by breakouts from a youthful core, from Eichel, Reinhart and O'Reilly up front to the emergence of young blueliners such as Jake McCabe (22 years old) and Rasmus Ristolainen (21). Injuries and lack of depth have limited their ability to make a run in the Eastern Conference this season, and their possession numbers have dipped slightly over their recent losing streak. In the second of four straight home games, Chicago can keep their momentum rolling by playing a disciplined, uptempo game and getting off to a good start like they did in Wednesday's domination of Pittsburgh.