1. PENS TO PAPER
Here come the Pittsburgh Penguins. On Tuesday they’ll try to build off arguably their best performance of the year, a 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders. Plus, they strung together back-to-back wins for the first time since mid-November. Scoring was a big problem for the Penguins early in the season, and that led to the firing of Mike Johnston. Although it’s a small sample size—new head coach Mike Sullivan’s first game was Dec. 14—Pittsburgh has started to find the back of the net with more frequency over the past few weeks. With talent like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, who have all proven over their careers to be exceptional offensive talents, the Blackhawks could be in for challenge defensively.
2. SID THE KID
Perhaps the best cause for optimism for the Penguins is that Crosby has appeared to return to form after a poor start to the season. The Penguins captain had just one goal and four assists in 11 games during the month of October, but the 2005 first-overall pick is now enjoying his most productive stretch of the season. He’s tallied four goals over the past three games, including the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s last two tilts, and has 10 points over the past seven games. Part of the improvement stems from a simple correction in shooting percentage: From October through mid-November, Crosby was shooting 4.2 percent in all situations and had not scored a single even-strength goal; since then he’s posted an 11.6 EV SH%, which is much closer to his career average (stats courtesy war-on-ice.com).
3. TIP OF THE ICEBURGH
It’s not just Crosby, either; that’s the scary thing for Pittsburgh’s opponents. Several of the Penguins’ big-name players have awoken from an early-season slumber. Malkin, who has a team-high 18 goals, has back-to-back three-point games and has picked up a goal and six assists over the past three tilts. Defenseman Kris Letang has also registered back-to-back games with three points. Since returning from injury on Dec. 26, Letang has eight points (2G, 6A) in four games. The Blackhawks will want to stay out of the penalty box, as Pittsburgh’s power play has converted nine times with a man advantage over the past seven games. Malkin, Kessel, Crosby and Letang make up the Penguins’ top power play unit, which also features Patric Hornqvist as an effective goalie screen, while former Blackhawk Trevor Daley anchors the second unit.
4. AA BATTERIES
The Blackhawks enter Tuesday’s game riding a three-game winning streak and averaging over 4.5 goals during that stretch, with a good chunk of offense coming from an unlikely source. Andrew Desjardins, one of the team’s top penalty-killers, has been extremely valuable in a defensive role since joining the Blackhawks last season, but he’s never been known as a goal-scorer. Last week, Desjardins found himself in elite company. The winger netted four goals, tied with Alex Ovechkin, Crosby and Tyler Toffoli for second in the league. Desjardins now has five goals this season, which ties his career high. Artem Anisimov also scored Sunday and now has a goal in each of the last three games, including his 100th career tally. His 15 goals rank second on the team behind linemate Patrick Kane, and he’s on track to match or even exceed his career high of 22, set in 2013-14 with Columbus.
5. BETWEEN THE PIPES
Corey Crawford has been exceptional this season; with Sunday’s win, Crawford improved his record to 20-10-2 and picked up his NHL-leading sixth shutout, also a career best. Four of those shutouts have come in his last 10 starts, seven of which have been Blackhawks victories. Coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t announced a starter for Tuesday’s tilt, but Crawford and Scott Darling are likely to split starts Tuesday and Wednesday with back-to-back meetings against Pittsburgh; Darling has earned at least a point in four of his last five starts. As for the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury returned to action Saturday after missing eight games with a concussion; he stopped 38 of 40 shots to record the victory. Jeff Zatkoff, the Penguins’ backup goalie, has posted an impressive .926 save percentage to go along with a 2.60 goals-against average in eight appearances this year.
THE FINAL WORD
A couple weeks can make a world of difference. It wasn’t that long ago that the Penguins were a team playing well below expectations. Now, with a new coach and their stars producing like stars, the Pens are sporting a 4-1-1 record over their last six games and have totaled 10 goals over their last two games. They haven’t shown it for a sustained period of time yet, but when firing on all cylinders, the Penguins are a dangerous team. Pittsburgh does have questions on defense, and Chicago can apply pressure with a strong forecheck, which has led to success over their three-game winning stretch. But if the Blackhawks can’t continue showing consistency throughout the lineup, this could be an even more challenging home-and-home series than the matchup promises.