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Blackhawks Buzz: Seeking good start in Carolina before All-Star break

by Eric Lear / Chicago Blackhawks


Tuesday marks the second and final meeting of the year between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes. Carolina won the first tilt back on Dec. 27, handing the Blackhawks their last loss before they rattled off a franchise-record 12 consecutive wins. Chicago has gone 1-2-0 since the streak ended, most recently beating St. Louis 2-0 at the United Center. Sunday’s victory gave the Blackhawks 70 points, joining Washington as the only teams to reach that plateau so far this season. The Hurricanes are coming off a 5-2 win over Calgary, and they’re 6-3-1 in their last 10. Carolina owns the sixth spot in a tight Metropolitan Division where there’s less than a 10-point difference from second to seventh place.


Kris Versteeg was sent to Carolina via trade last offseason after winning his second Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, and he’s now playing a big role for the Hurricanes. Versteeg, who scored two goals in Carolina’s last game, is skating on the top line alongside center Eric Staal and right winger Elias Lindholm. Carolina as a team has improved its possession numbers drastically, and that line is leading the way, controlling around 61 percent of shots at even strength and ranking in the top five among the league’s most dominant trios (min. 80 EV minutes together, stat ref). Through 49 games this year, Versteeg has tallied 10 goals and 20 assists, trailing only Justin Faulk in points. He spent two different stints with the Blackhawks (2007-10 and 2013-15), totaling 294 games in a Chicago sweater, netting 68 goals and dishing out 96 assists.


Eddie Lack has taken over goaltending duties for Carolina while longtime Hurricanes starter Cam Ward is on injured reserve recovering from a head injury. The former Vancouver Canuck has posted just an 8-9-3 record in 19 starts this season, with an .899 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average, and a look at his last five starts—dating back to Ward’s injury—reveals the same inconsistency that has plagued Carolina’s netminding all season. Goals allowed over that span: 1, 5, 0, 4 and 2, with wins recorded in the three starts in which he allowed two or fewer goals. His 32-save performance on Jan. 21 in Toronto was his first shutout of the season, although Lack’s best effort was arguably on Dec. 27, when he made 35 saves on 36 Blackhawks shots and had his shutout bid ended by Brent Seabrook with just 3 seconds left in regulation.


Justin Faulk, a young puck-moving defenseman, will draw a lot of attention from the Blackhawks when he hits the ice. In 82 games last year, he scored 15 goals on 283 shots. Fifty games into this season, the Minnesota native already has 14 goals on 151 shots. Now in his fifth NHL season, the 23-year-old has developed into a quality offensive defenseman with a booming shot and instincts to join the rush and get involved in the offensive zone. He also leads the team with nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game, which includes 3:18 with the man advantage. Faulk, who will represent Carolina at the All-Star Game for the second year in a row, is a big threat on the power play. His 12 goals with a man advantage tie him with Dallas captain Jamie Benn for second in the league behind Patrick Kane, who has 14.


In the second period of Sunday’s showdown with St. Louis, Patrick Kane carried the puck into the offensive zone along right boards and put a rink-wide backhand pass right onto the tape of Artemi Panarin’s stick, and the rookie buried it for the eventual game-winning goal. After the game, Joel Quenneville gave the two talented wingers some high praise.

“Special play,” Coach Q said. “The anticipation between the two of them in Sedin-like.”

Quenneville was referring to Canucks stars Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who have been torturing opponents for the last 15 years with their ability to seemingly predict where the other is going before the play develops. Kane and Panarin have only played 52 games together, but they have already combined to tally 119 points. Kane leads all players with 30 goals, 43 assists and 73 points, while Panarin leads NHL rookies with 17 goals, 29 assists and 46 points.


The Blackhawks are one game away from something they haven’t had since Christmas: a break. With 14 games in a 24-day stretch, there are bound to be some tired legs, something that seemed evident last week in Florida. Chicago has enjoyed consecutive days without a game just once since the Circus Trip in late November, but the team will need to come out Tuesday with energy knowing that a five-day break is right around the corner for everyone but All-Star representatives Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Some early offense could be key, just as it was during the 12-game win streak, in order to force the Hurricanes to play from behind. Carolina is one of the lowest scoring teams in the league; the Hurricanes average 2.36 goals per game, tied for 25th.

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