1. ORIGINAL FLAVOR
The Blackhawks are still looking for their first win of the homestand, and they'll have a prime opportunity to do so against the Eastern Conference-worst Maple Leafs, who have dropped three of their first four games on a five-game road trip that concludes Monday. Toronto was outscored 15-6 in those first three tilts before defeating Vancouver 5-2 on Saturday, the same day Chicago dropped a 3-2 overtime result against Anaheim after being outshot 44-23. The Blackhawks simply haven't played up to par with their opponents, posting score-adjusted shot percentages under 47 in each of those three losses. They've conceded the possession game to strong teams in San Jose, Dallas and Anaheim, but getting their game back in shape will require quicker zone exits and better puck management at the opponents' end of the ice. Chicago and Toronto previously met on Jan. 15, when Patrick Kane collected his first career regular-season hat trick and played a part in all four Blackhawks goals as the visitors romped to a 4-1 victory.
2. HOSS LOSS
The Blackhawks will need to get back in the win column without their most consistent two-way winger in Marian Hossa, who left Saturday's contest with a lower-body injury and was placed on injured reserve on Sunday. While he had just 28 points (10G, 18A) in 54 games this season, his ability to assert himself at both ends of the ice meant the Blackhawks were controlling around 52 percent of shots at even strength when he was on the ice, third-best among team forwards (per war-on-ice.com). Chicago will also need to replace his 17:23 of ice time, which includes 1:59 of power play and 1:28 of shorthanded shifts. The team didn't practice on Sunday, which means Head Coach Joel Quenneville could opt to try out a number of options at the right wing spot against Toronto, including Teuvo Teravainen, Andrew Desjardins, Rockford callup Vincent Hinostroza or Kane if the scoreline necessitates it.
3. THE BABCOCK EFFECT
Toronto brass had hopes that bringing in veteran head coach Mike Babcock would help stabilize a Leafs team that has strung together several disappointing seasons. In some ways, he has done that, improving the team's overall possession numbers by nearly 5 percent (50.9 CF%, up from 46.4 in 2014-15, per war-on-ice.com). However, the trade of sniper Phil Kessel last summer and long-term injuries to James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak this season left a big gap in scoring talent that no one has come close to replicating. Leo Komarov leads the team with 18 tallies, and Toronto is one of nine teams without a 20-goal-scorer yet this season. Add to that a lengthy injury to starter James Reimer earlier in the season and the recent trade of captain Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa, and the Leafs are facing some tough sledding to finish out the year. The Blackhawks are familiar with Babcock's systems, having battled against his Red Wings teams for years, and despite a perceived lack of talent on paper, Toronto has enough experienced players who can take advantage of mistakes or bad efforts in the defensive zone.
4. THE CONSTANT GARDINER
One bright spot for Toronto over the last week has been the play of defenseman Jake Gardiner, who has four points in his last three outings, including two helpers on Saturday in Vancouver. He currently ranks second among team defensemen with a 53.4 on-ice shot attempt percentage, and he's been better than 59 percent in five of his last six outings (per war-on-ice.com). Gardiner played a season-high 25:40 on Feb. 9 in Calgary, the team's first game without Phaneuf, and with big shoes to fill in terms of ice time and all-around utility, he will certainly be one of the names Babcock counts on moving forward. In five seasons with Toronto, the 25-year-old has accumulated 109 points in 297 games, and he along with Morgan Rielly will be ones to watch for the Blackhawks on Monday, as they're always eager to join the rush and post up for big point shots at five-on-five and on the power play.
5. TWO IF BY SEABS
Defenseman Brent Seabrook provided the Blackhawks' only offensive sparks on Saturday against Anaheim, leading the team with five shots on goal and compiling his first multi-goal outing of the campaign and third of his career. The 30-year-old reached a couple of benchmarks with his two tallies. The first—a slapshot after the puck ricocheted back to him when his initial shot was blocked—tied a career high for power-play tallies (5, initially set in 2010-11). With his second of the night, which tied the score at 2-2 midway through the third period, Seabrook reached the double-digit goal mark for the first time in his career, and he continues to lead club blueliners with 35 points in 59 games this season.
THE FINAL WORD
The fact that Toronto sits last in the East shouldn't lessen the Blackhawks' sense of urgency heading into Monday's game as they try to break out of a lackluster home stretch. Babcock has seen his team suffer from a huge offensive drop-off this season—especially on the power play, where they sit dead-last in the league—but they'll still attempt to slow the game down and make life difficult for the Blackhawks. Illnesses and injuries have taken their toll on Chicago and caused some roster confusion, but establishing puck possession early and giving a solid 60-minute effort should be enough to take care of business.