1. JUST DESERTS
The Arizona Coyotes have made great strides as an organization in just one short year. A season ago, the team finished with just 56 points, the fewest in the Western Conference. After 50 games this season, the Coyotes already have 53 points, good for third place in the Pacific Division and currently tied with Anaheim. Should they stay at this pace, the Coyotes would make the playoffs for the first time since the 2012, when they knocked out the Blackhawks in the first round and advanced to the Western Conference Final for the first time in franchise history. In their last outing on Tuesday, Arizona watched a 2-1 lead disappear as the division-leading L.A. Kings scored five unanswered goals en route to a 6-2 win in Glendale. Chicago also returned to action on Tuesday, recording a narrow 2-1 win over Colorado but dominating their hosts with a 42-23 shot advantage. The two teams last met on Dec. 29 in Arizona in a wild shootout that ended 7-5 in the Blackhawks’ favor, although Coyotes captain Shane Doan did register a hat trick in the contest.
2. BALANCING ACT
When looking at the Coyotes’ individual stats, no one player jumps out as having particularly gaudy numbers; however, what Arizona does have is several players lighting the lamp at a similar rate. Doan paces the team with 17 goals and is one of six players with 14 or more tallies, while the Blackhawks have just four players that have reached double digits in goals. Arizona’s ability to get scoring from all lines in addition to a few defensemen—led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who shares the team lead with 34 points—means the Blackhawks will have to play a solid defensive game on all four lines, as the Coyotes try to compensate for a lack of elite talent in the lineup with the structure favored by Head Coach Dave Tippett.
3. YOUTH MOVEMENT
Two 20-year-olds have emerged as standout offensive contributors for Arizona this season and are playing important roles on the second line. Max Domi has posted 33 points, tying him with Dylan Larkin for third in the league among rookies, while Anthony Duclair ranks fifth with 26 points. Duclair, who was acquired from the Rangers last season, has a goal in each of his last two games, upping his total on the year to 14. Domi, Arizona’s first-round pick in 2013, has just two assists since posting his first career hat trick nine games ago, but his speed and skill make him dangerous on every shift. The Coyotes also feature a talented young goaltender, Louis Domingue. In 11 January appearances, the 23-year-old rookie posted a 6-3-2 record with a .925 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average. Those numbers earned the 2010 fifth-round pick NHL Rookie of the Month honors. Domingue, who is filling in for the injured Mike Smith along with backup Anders Lindback, has allowed five goals in each of his last two starts, and the Coyotes will hope for a better performance from him on Tuesday against the Blackhawks.
4. GIVE ME A BREAK
The All-Star break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Blackhawks. After the excitement of establishing a franchise-record 12-game winning streak, the team appeared to be out of gas, losing three of four before the break. In Tuesday’s tilt with Colorado, the Blackhawks appeared rested, refreshed and energetic. They showed long stretches of dominance against an Avalanche team that’s leading the Western Conference wild card race, posting an even-strength shot attempt differential of +44 while limiting Colorado to just eight shots on goal over the first 40 minutes. Chicago currently leads the Central Division by three points over Dallas and is just two points behind Washington in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, although the Capitals do have six games in hand due to some weather-related game cancellations last month.
5. PANNING OUT
Just 3 minutes into the first period of Tuesday’s game, Richard Panik crashed the Avalanche net and chipped the puck past Calvin Pickard for the game’s first goal. Panik, who played a season-high 13:35, has been effective since joining the Blackhawks in mid-January. In nine games with Chicago, the Slovakia native has netted three goals and an assist, showing a nose for net that may have been missing from Chicago’s bottom six earlier in the season. Panik has played in 160 NHL games with three teams over the span of four seasons, but his offensive spark has made a good first impression so far on Head Coach Joel Quenneville, who said he was “very happy, very pleased” with Panik’s performance on Tuesday.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks are coming off a strong team performance from top to bottom, and it should only get better Thursday in Arizona as they’ll get a boost from the return of their captain. Jonathan Toews will return to the lineup after serving a one-game suspension for missing the All-Star Game due to illness; Chicago was edged in the faceoff circle against the Avalanche, and that’s just one of the areas Toews’ presence should help. Arizona has managed to stay in the playoff picture in a Pacific Division that lacks depth, but they have a -19 goal differential, stemming from inconsistent goaltending and poor penalty-killing. The Blackhawks have been great out of the gate; they’ve netted 47 first-period goals this season, the most of any team in the league. Even if they don’t score early, keeping their foot on the gas should result in offense, as Arizona’s allowed just over three goals per game, third-most in the NHL.