1. COOLING JETS
A 4-0 win in Winnipeg two weeks ago was the last time the Blackhawks defeated a Central Division team, but it took a mid-game line adjustment by Head Coach Joel Quenneville to open the floodgates for scoring. Chicago swept their two-game trip to Western Canada before dropping a 4-1 decision in Minnesota on Tuesday to close out the month of March, a game that could have repercussions for the team going into the playoffs. Marian Hossa tallied his 33rd career shorthanded tally for his 499th goal, but he won't get a chance to hit the big milestone until Sunday at the earliest, as he will miss Friday's tilt due to illness. The Jets have won just two of six games since the sides last met, most recently dropping a 2-1 game to Ottawa on Wednesday.
2. THE THIN BLUE LINE
The Blackhawks are waiting to hear about a possible—and possibly lengthy—suspension to Duncan Keith, who received a match penalty for intent to injure in Tuesday's loss in Minnesota after high-sticking forward Charlie Coyle; he was offered an in-person hearing by the league, which indicates the suspension could exceed five games, bleeding into the start of the playoffs. With Corey Crawford still out of commission, any extended absence by Keith would put pressure on the team defensively. Brent Seabrook also missed Tuesday's tilt with an illness, which meant that the Blackhawks played without either of their blue-line stalwarts for the first time since the pair entered the league in 2005-06; Trevor van Riemsdyk led the way with 26:16 in the game, and four of the five remaining defensemen skated over 22 minutes. Seabrook is expected to return on Friday in Winnipeg, which should restore some balance, but the six-man unit will need to prove that they can make up for Keith's absence by committee.
The Jets have a personnel shortage of their own on the blue line, missing top-four contributors Toby Enstrom (knee) and Tyler Myers (knee, hip) for the rest of the season, but as always, former Blackhawk Dustin Byfuglien promises to be a physical threat on both sides of the ice and will see a lion's share of ice time at even strength and on the power play.
3. SCHEIFELE THE DECK
The Jets are also shorthanded up front, as Bryan Little (fractured vertebrae), Mathieu Perreault (concussion) and Anthony Peluso (shoulder) have missed time for various periods of time. While Little was expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery, he was cleared for contact in practice earlier this week, although it's doubtful he'll return in time to face the Blackhawks. While a lot of Winnipeg's prospects are trying to make a strong impression on the coaching staff in the final weeks of the season, more established youngsters are stepping up into leadership roles, chief among them Mark Scheifele, who's moved onto the top line in Little's absence, adding power alongside the speedy Blake Wheeler and veteran Drew Stafford.
The seventh-overall pick in 2011 scored the lone goal for the Jets in Wednesday's loss to Ottawa, extending his point streak to five games (3G, 4A), during which he surpassed his career high. The 23-year-old, whose strong finish could put him on the map for one of Team North America's final spots for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, has 53 points (26G, 27A) in 66 games this season, four better than his total of 49 points in 82 games last season.
4. FORWARD THINKING
Hossa may be out of commission in Winnipeg, but the Blackhawks hope the return of Artem Anisimov will provide a boost to their top six. Anisimov missed the last two games due to illness, but hasn't been performing up to the high standard he set earlier in the season. The 27-year-old has just two assists in his last eight games, and he hasn't found the back of the net since March 6, compiling just 13 shots on goal over that dry spell. Quenneville's lines during Thursday's practice indicate that Anisimov will slot back into his usual spot as second line center, while Teravainen—his temporary replacement—moves back to the third line between Dale Weise and Brandon Mashinter, and Tomas Fleischmann hops onto the top line with Andrew Ladd and Jonathan Toews. But if the second line—one of the team's steadiest combinations all season—struggles at the outset of Friday's game, Quenneville could make changes quickly, as he did two weeks ago.
5. A TIME TO KILL
As expected, Marcus Kruger's return to the lineup has helped stabilize the Blackhawks' penalty kill, which has not allowed a goal in three games since his return (0-for-7). Although it's a rather small sample size, Kruger's positional awareness helps limit shots to the outside as well as direct other players around the ice. Scott Darling has also been a big part of Chicago's renewed PK, stopping 17 shots over the last three games. In the continued absence of Corey Crawford—who could start skating again as soon as this weekend—Darling has started seven consecutive games, a career long, and done fairly well. Despite posting a 3-3-1 record, the 27-year-old has stopped 168 of 183 shots for a .918 save percentage over those seven starts, and he has allowed more than two goals at even strength just once.
THE FINAL WORD
The silver lining for a Jets team that has languished in last place in the Central for the last month is the lengthy marinating period for some of their young faces, including Joel Armia, Marko Dano and Nic Petan, who join Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp as the team's next wave of talent. The future may be bright for the Jets, but their current on-ice problems can be boiled down to lack of special teams execution and overall offensive production. The Blackhawks had problems winning against Winnipeg last season, but this season Chicago has taken three of four so far. While the absence of some big names may result in a more conservative game plan on Friday, a clean 60-minute effort and another solid outing by Darling should result in two points for a team that needs to gain some confidence going into the last week of the regular season.