1. COYOTE CROSSING
Escaping the winter storms of Chicago might do the Blackhawks some good, as they seek to break a two-game losing streak while closing out the calendar year with games in Glendale, Ariz., and Denver. Tuesday's tilt will be the first matchup of the season between the Blackhawks and Coyotes; Chicago was 2-0-1 in 2014-15, and Andrew Shaw led the way with three goals in three contests. As of Monday, the Coyotes sit in second place in the Pacific Division despite just a 17-15-3 record, but most of their wins have come against divisional opponents. They dropped just their third point against the Pacific on Saturday when they lost 4-3 in overtime to Los Angeles, and they most recently picked up a 2-1 overtime win in Colorado, Arizona's only road jaunt in their last nine games.
The Coyotes have benefitted from an injection of youth into their lineup, and up front the charge has been led by a pair of 20-year-olds in Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. Domi has been one of the best rookies in the league this season, and he ranks second on the team with 26 points (10G, 16A) in 35 games; Duclair, who Arizona acquired from the New York Rangers at last season's trade deadline, has 19 points (10G, 9A) in 34 outings. The pair are currently centered by waiver wire pickup and former Blackhawk Viktor Tikhonov, who has added size and net-front presence to a line that already boasts speed and skill. Although the trio has played together for just under 39 minutes at even strength, they've been able to dominate both shot attempt percentage (57.4) and scoring chance percentage (64.5), and Head Coach Dave Tippett is hoping their continued success can help the Coyotes lock down a playoff spot in the spring. (stat ref)
3. EK AND CALL
Arizona's true star over the last few seasons has been defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who has averaged over 25 minutes a game—playing all situations—in each of his last four campaigns. The 2009 first-round pick shares fourth among NHL defensemen with nine goals and ranks fourth with a team-high 103 shots on goal; he scored two power-play goals on Saturday against the Kings and helped key a late comeback push to tie the game and force overtime. Ekman-Larsson is highly effective on the rush, unafraid to join the play or take the puck into a scoring area, and his ability to dictate proceedings from the blue line, whether sneaking a shot on net or finding a teammate through traffic, makes him doubly dangerous in the offensive zone. He has also displayed a knack for drawing penalties (see sidebar). Chicago's defenders will need to be especially aware on the penalty kill, as Ekman-Larsson leads the league in total power-play time (190:34, 18 minutes more than the closest competitor, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson).
4. THE RIGHT BLEND
Monday's practice in Chicago featured some line changes for Joel Quenneville's men, who were 3 seconds away from being shut out for the second consecutive game on Sunday. Shaw, one of the Blackhawks' more energetic players over the last couple of weeks, moved back up to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, while Teuvo Teravainen was slotted on a new-look third line with Phillip Danault—the two shared the team lead on Sunday with four scoring chances each—and Andrew Desjardins. On defense, Erik Gustafsson was recalled from Rockford and should bring added mobility and offensive acumen to the table, as Coach Q looks to generate more scoring opportunities throughout his lineup. In six games with Chicago earlier this season, the 23-year-old Swede collected three assists, and he has 11 points in 27 games with the IceHogs.
5. BOED SQUAD
Arizona's top line features one of the more underrated wingers in the league in Mikkel Boedker, who leads the team with 12 goals and 28 points; in 35 games this season, he has already matched his point total from the 2014-15 campaign, which was shortened by injury. Playing alongside Antoine Vermette, who re-signed in Arizona after winning the Stanley Cup with Chicago in June, and Tobias Rieder, Boedker has been on a tear lately, notching eight points in his last seven outings, a total that includes three assists on Saturday against the Kings and the overtime winner the next night in Colorado—his third of the season, tying a Coyotes/Jets franchise record in a single season.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks' main objective on Tuesday is to kickstart their sputtering offense, which has looked disjointed in back-to-back losses against two very different systems in Dallas and Carolina. They'll look to regain their confidence against one of the weaker possession teams in the league while facing Anders Lindback, who has just a .900 save percentage this season but stopped 38 of 39 in Sunday's win. Although the Coyotes are prone to giving up shots, they play an effective counterattacking style, relying on speedy wingers like Domi, Duclair, Boedker and Reider to take advantage when they can. Ekman-Larsson spearheads a blue line that has contributed 23 of the team's 95 goals this season (24.2 percent), so limiting costly turnovers will be crucial to the Blackhawks' chances of gaining two points in the desert.