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Blackhawks Buzz: Kruger returns against Calgary

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks


The Blackhawks and Flames meet up for the third and final time this season on Saturday, with Chicago trying to regain footing in the division and Calgary simply playing out the rest of their season, but the skill level throughout both teams' forward corps—and some struggles in goal—should make this an entertaining matchup with plenty of offense and scoring chances. The Flames are home for a weird one-game stopover in the middle of seven road tilts, and they've been decent in front of their fans with 20 wins in 38 contests this season. They were last in action on Thursday, falling 6-2 in Minnesota, while the Blackhawks dropped the sixth of their last seven outings with a 6-2 loss of their own to Dallas.


One bright spot for Calgary all season has been the dazzling skill of human highlight reel Johnny Gaudreau, who has followed up a 64-point rookie campaign with a career-high 72 points in 73 games, good for seventh in the league. The 22-year-old tallied one of Calgary's two goals in Minnesota and has nine points (4G, 5A) over his last eight games. However, Gaudreau has done the most damage to opponents at home—he has a league-best 52 points in 37 games—largely due to the fact that Calgary can create advantageous matchups for their top duo, which also features Sean Monahan (55 points). Despite his listed size of 5 feet, 9 inches, and 157 pounds, Gaudreau's hands and elusiveness make him difficult to neutralize completely, and if the game goes to 3-on-3 overtime, watch out. Gaudreau leads the league when there's more ice to play on, collecting eight points (3G, 5A) in extra time.


The Blackhawks are hoping for a personnel boost during their three-game road trip in the form of Marcus Kruger, who resumed skating on the fourth line between Andrews Shaw and Desjardins during Friday's practice and will play there on Saturday, according to Head Coach Joel Quenneville. Chicago has missed its top penalty-killing forward, certainly, as a team that was in the top 10 for the first third of the season currently sits in 24th after a rough couple of months. Kruger's return after missing over three months with a wrist injury should have a stabilizing effect at the defensive end of the ice, where the Blackhawks have been vulnerable, especially with Corey Crawford still day-to-day with an injury. Scott Darling is expected to get his fifth consecutive start, and it'll be his third appearance against Calgary this season; he stopped 60 of 63 shots (.952 save percentage) in the first two matchups.


After holding a team meeting on Tuesday, Quenneville acknowledged that the team was disappointed with both their mental and physical effort over the past few weeks, and is hoping the longer break between games would give his team a boost in both areas heading into the road swing. The Blackhawks' puck possession game has suffered, leading not only to more scoring chances against, but also more dangerous scoring chances against. While Kruger's return will help with line matchups and penalty killing, the team also recalled defenseman Viktor Svedberg from Rockford on Wednesday, giving Chicago an additional shutdown option on the blue line. It will be the 24-year-old's third stint with the club this season; he has four points (2G, 2A) in 19 appearances with the Blackhawks in addition to 15 points in 40 AHL games with Rockford.


A lot of Calgary's offense is created from the back, and more specifically through their captain, Mark Giordano. The undrafted defenseman has been incredibly productive down the stretch, collecting his 30th assist of the season against Minnesota and now has 13 points (4G, 9A) in his last 13 games. Giordano has been one of the more underrated blueliners in the league over the past few seasons; since the lockout, he ranks eighth among NHL defensemen with 99 even-strength points and 13th with 160 overall. The 32-year-old plays monster minutes at even strength, ranking in the top 10 this season in total EV ice time (1,438:35), and he's regularly deployed to go head-to-head against the toughest competition each night. He also plays over 3 minutes a night on the power play and is one of the Flames' top two penalty killers, so the Blackhawks' top lines and special teams units can expect to see a ton of Giordano on Saturday.


Gaining four points in two nights in Western Canada is never easy, despite letdown campaigns by both the Flames and Canucks, but the Blackhawks must find something to build off of before they find themselves slipping even closer to a wild card spot. Calgary's offensive abilities have been canceled by league-worst goaltending and poor special teams all season, which is an area that Chicago can exploit on Saturday. Playing a strong defensive game as a team will be the primary focus for Coach Q, however, with an emphasis on protecting the puck and making smart decisions in transition.

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