1. WELCOME TO HOCKEYTOWN
Despite a -2 goal differential—the lowest of any playoff team in the Eastern Conference—Detroit is on the verge of guaranteeing postseason hockey for the 25th consecutive season, the longest active streak in any of the four major North American sports leagues (NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL); they won four Stanley Cups over that span. In their first campaign under former AHL bench boss Jeff Blashill, who replaced longtime head coach Mike Babcock over the summer, the Red Wings sit third in the Atlantic with 75 points and are just three points back of Florida and Tampa, who are tied for first place. The team recently rallied from a four-game losing streak to win each of their last three games, most recently a 3-2 overtime victory in Dallas on Monday.
2. HELLO OLD FRIENDS
The Blackhawks are coming off one of their biggest games of the year, a 3-2 victory over a Washington team that leads the NHL with 94 points, 11 more than the closest two teams (Dallas and Chicago). The Capitals started the game with a quick pace and outshot Chicago 17-6 in the opening frame, but the Blackhawks used a bounce-back second period, in which they outshot the visitors by 10, to take a lead they would not relinquish. The victory got Chicago back in the win column after losses to Central Division rivals Minnesota and Nashville. The Blackhawks lost both meetings with Detroit year ago, 4-1 at Joe Louis Arena and 3-2 in a shootout at the United Center. Wednesday will mark the first of two tilts with the Red Wings in a five-day span as Detroit will visit West Madison Street on Sunday; the Red Wings won’t play a game in between, while the Blackhawks are off to Boston on Thursday for a date with the Bruins.
3. DOUBLE A
If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to. In Monday’s game, Andreas Athanasiou scored a highlight-reel goal, beating two former Blackhawks in the process. The rookie turned defenseman Johnny Oduya around with a toe-drag before throwing a backhander past a diving Antti Niemi. It’s goals like that, and his blazing speed—which Pavel Datsyuk compared to lightning—that have helped Athanasiou stand out despite limited playing time. He scored twice while skating just 11:29 on Monday, just the fourth time in 18 NHL games that he’s played over 10 minutes, as the Red Wings prefer to gradually ease their young talent into the lineup. The fourth-round pick in 2012 has also scored eight goals and tallied eight assists in 26 games with Detroit’s AHL affiliate, Grand Rapids, this year. Last season he picked up 16 goals and 16 assists in 55 games for the Griffins.
4. SPEED DEMON
Athanasiou is centering Detroit’s third line, flanked by former Blackhawk Brad Richards and standout rookie Dylan Larkin. The left winger, just 19 years old this year, currently ranks fourth among rookies—behind Artemi Panarin, Max Domi and Jack Eichel—with 39 points, although he’s on a bit of a cold streak, with just one point in his last nine games. His 19 goals and 166 shots on goal are the most on a Red Wings team that features veteran stars such as Henrik Zetterberg and Datsyuk, who scored the game-winning goal Monday. Larkin spent the 2014-15 season playing for the University of Michigan, scoring 15 goals before spending the postseason with Grand Rapids, where he tallied three goals and two assists.
“Speed,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said when asked to describe Larkin’s game. “That kid’s a special player who utilizes that strength to his game, and he’s got some skill along with it.”
5. SIMPLE LADDITION
Andrew Ladd didn’t wait long to find the scoresheet after being traded back to the Blackhawks. Just over 2 minutes into the second period in his first game back, the former Winnipeg captain put a pass between his legs that found Teuvo Teravainen, who then hit Jonathan Toews for a power-play goal. The assist was Ladd’s first point in a Blackhawks uniform since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. Ladd, who skated alongside Toews and Andrew Shaw on the top line on Sunday, played just over 14 minutes of ice time, including 2:41 on the power play. The Blackhawks are hoping that his size, scoring touch and familiarity with Quenneville’s system will provide a spark for the top trio, especially with Marian Hossa still ailing (he did not travel on the road trip, but could be cleared before the weekend).
“It was obviously fun to be in a big game right off the hop,” Ladd said. “I think as we go along it will be a little less thinking and a little more just playing and reacting, which should help.”
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks will add one more piece to the puzzle on Wednesday in Detroit, as newly acquired defenseman Christian Ehrhoff is likely to make his first start in a Blackhawks sweater. While the lineup continues to gel with new teammates in the mix—Dale Weise has not joined the team yet due to a visa issue—the Blackhawks approach a difficult stretch of the schedule with eight straight games against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Whether it was the new lines, the early start or the quality of their opponent, the Blackhawks didn’t start well on Sunday. They’ll need to play the first 20 minutes in Detroit like they did in the final 40 minutes against the Capitals to leave Motor City with two points against their historical rivals.