1. GREASED LIGHTNING
The Lightning and Blackhawks have a few things in common: Both have been nearly unbeatable since the calendar flipped to 2016, and as a result, both have made a charge up the standings in their respective divisions. Chicago has won a franchise-record 12 consecutive games, jumping from third to first in the Central Division and opening up a five-point lead on a slumping Dallas team. In the East, Tampa Bay has the second-longest active win streak in the league at six games and have jumped up from sixth to third in the Atlantic. Thursday will mark the second and final meeting between the two teams that battled for the Stanley Cup last season. The Blackhawks shut out Tampa Bay 1-0 back on Oct. 24 at the United Center, with Jonathan Toews scoring the game-winner 17 seconds into overtime and Corey Crawford making 21 saves for his first shutout of the season.
2. EVEN STEVEN
There’s some uncertainty in the future of Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. He’s yet to sign a contract extension, and if he doesn’t, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Even with that looming in the back of his mind, he’s been able to put up solid numbers this season after putting up 43 goals in 2014-15. As of Wednesday, the top-line winger is one of 11 players in the league to hit the 20-goal mark; he leads team forwards with 19:48 of ice time per game, nearly a minute more than the second-ranked forward. Stamkos has six points (2G, 4A) in his last four games, including two helpers on Tuesday in Tampa’s 6-4 win over Edmonton. The first-overall pick in 2008 didn’t register a goal in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, but he has great numbers against the Blackhawks in regular-season play. In career 10 outings against Chicago, he’s netted 11 goals and six assists, including two hat tricks, so limiting his shooting opportunities will be important if the Blackhawks are to keep him off the board.
3. NIK AT NIGHT
Third-year pro Nikita Kucherov is currently pacing the Lightning in the middle a breakout sophomore campaign, posting 39 points in 46 games. No longer playing on last season’s vaunted “Triplets” line—Alex Killorn now flanks Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, instead of Ondrej Palat—Kucherov has tallied 19 goals and 20 assists. While Tampa struggled to string together wins, Kucherov himself has been a model of consistency over the past two months. The Moscow native is working on a six-game point streak and has notched 21 points over his last 15 games, going without a point in just one of those contests. Kucherov, who contributed 10 goals and 12 assists in 26 playoff games a year ago, had just one shot on goal in Tuesday’s win over Edmonton, but made it count by beating Anders Nilsson to break a 1-1 tie, while adding an assist.
4. OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW
Tuesday’s victory in Nashville—requiring 38 saves on 39 shots, including all 16 he faced in the third period—marked Corey Crawford’s ninth victory in a row, continuing the best stretch of his career. He’s now just the second goalie in team history to win nine straight appearances after Blackhawks legend Glenn Hall during the 1966-67 season (per Elias Sports). The 31-year-old has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of those nine wins, and overall he’s posted a 16-3-0 record dating back to Dec. 6, which includes four of his league-high six shutouts. Also impressive has been the fact that Crawford has lost consecutive games just once this season, while boasting win streaks of four or more games on three separate occasions. He shares fourth in the league with a career-best .931 save percentage and trails just one netminder (Washington’s Braden Holtby) in the win column.
“Some nights he looks unbeatable,” Patrick Kane said after Tuesday’s win in Nashville. “I think he’s very underrated as far as goalies go in the league. We feel we have the best-kept secret with him.”
5. WAIT A SECOND
Against Nashville, the Blackhawks’ most productive line this season once again led the team to victory. Artem Anisimov started the scoring with under a minute to go in the first period; his 16th goal of the season was assisted by both of his linemates, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. In the second period, with the Blackhawks leading 2-1, Panarin sent a pass up the middle of the ice right on the tape of a streaking Patrick Kane, and the NHL’s leader in multiple offensive categories beat Pekka Rinne with a trademark backhand move. The goal was Kane’s 30th of the season, tying his career high set in 2009-10. With those two helpers, Panarin now leads the rookie scoring race by 14 points and shares eighth among all players with 45 points (16G, 29A). With Chicago’s top line coming to life and the bottom two lines contributing goals each night, there’s been even more room for the second line to really establish their game, which relies on individual creativity as well as quick passing plays.
THE FINAL WORD
Everything is working right now for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. They are scoring goals and keeping the puck out of their own net; during the franchise-record 12-game winning streak, the Blackhawks have outscored their opponents 47-22. Scoring first has been a big key to success as well; they’ve done it in 11 of the 12 games during the streak, and they’re 29-3-2 on the year when getting the first goal. Their opponents on Tuesday have a lot to prove, not just against the Blackhawks, but as a statement to the rest of the Eastern Conference, that they’re still the same dynamic team that powered their way to the Final last season. Now that Tampa’s best players are all healthy and producing up to expectation, Chicago will have to keep firing on all cylinders to beat a Bolts side that’s playing its best hockey of the year.