1. BEANTOWN BATTLE
Just one day after rolling to a 5-2 victory in Detroit, the Blackhawks are back in action as they face the Boston Bruins for the first time in 2015-16. The two teams split the season series last year, with Chicago winning 3-2 on Dec. 11 at TD Garden and Boston taking a 6-2 decision from the United Center on Feb. 22. After defeating the Red Wings on Artemi Panarin's two-goal night, the Blackhawks are now two points clear atop the Central Division, while Boston has made gains in the Atlantic and are now four points behind first-place Florida. The Bruins are coming off a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, secured through a late power-play winner from Patrice Bergeron.
2. DYNAMIC DUO
One year after missing the playoffs, the Bruins have rebounded nicely, especially on offense, and part of their scoring surge is the result of a brilliant campaign by Brad Marchand. Through 59 games, the 27-year-old has tallied 32 goals and is on track to surpass his career high of 55 points set in 2011-12, while also shooting at a career-best rate, accumulating 191 shots on goal (3.24 per game). Marchand is certainly skilled, but also plays a hard-nosed game and gets plenty of scoring opportunities by going into the dirty areas. Marchand's center, Bergeron, is having a typically strong season, leading the team with 54 points (24G, 30A) while drawing some of the toughest assignments in the league, and if Head Coach Claude Julien opts to match Bergeron against Jonathan Toews, fans should be in for an entertaining battle between two perennial Selke finalists. Bergeron and Marchand have been the most dangerous duo in the league this season in terms of getting the puck to the net at even strength, ranking 1-2 in the NHL respectively per war-on-ice.com, and they've been joined by recent acquisition Lee Stempniak, who had 41 points in 63 games with New Jersey before landing in Boston. Needless to say, shutting down the Bruins' top line will be paramount to their chances of winning on Thursday.
3. MILESTONE MEN
Wednesday's win over the Red Wings emphasized the career years that several Blackhawks are enjoying. Defenseman Brent Seabrook opened the scoring with his 13th goal of the season, extending a career high, and added two helpers; he's seven points away from matching his career mark of 48 set in 2010-11. Seabrook has activated in the offensive zone much more in recent weeks, compiling six goals and four assists over his last 10 games. Patrick Kane matched the team high with three points against the Red Wings, tying his career high of 88 points with 17 regular-season games remaining; he continues to run away with the league scoring race, opening up a 17-point lead on last year's Art Ross winner, Jamie Benn. Lastly, goaltender Corey Crawford made 31 saves on 33 shots to record his 34th victory of the season, a personal best. The 31-year-old, who was named to Team Canada for the World Cup of Hockey, ranks second behind Braden Holtby in wins and has posted a .928 save percentage, third-best in the league.
4. WEISE GUY
Three games, three Blackhawks debuts: After sorting through immigration issues, winger Dale Weise is "very likely" to play for Chicago on Thursday in Boston, according to Head Coach Joel Quenneville. He's expected to skate on the third line with Teuvo Teravainen and fellow Canadiens transplant Tomas Fleischmann; the pair have been linemates for much of the season and combined for 24 goals in Montreal prior to the trade, which should give the trio some instant chemistry and scoring punch. The Winnipeg native has also been getting shots on net at a career-best rate, compiling 117 through 56 games and netting a career-best 14 tallies. Weise's introduction could also lend the team a shot of physicality and overall energy in the second half of a back-to-back; his strength on the forecheck resulted in 12 drawn penalties while with the Habs, which shared second on the team.
5. RASK AND REWARD
After a wildly inconsistent start to the season, Boston netminder Tuukka Rask has reverted to form, with some impressive performances over the last two weeks. Finland's likely starter at the World Cup of Hockey has won four of his last five starts, allowing just one goal in three of those outings and compiling a .940 save percentage over that span. Although his season numbers aren't as impressive as they've been over the last four campaigns—he shares 17th with a .918 SV% and 24th with a 2.53 goals-against average (min. 25 games)—Rask nevertheless gives his team a chance to win every night with his athleticism and ability to make acrobatic saves that other goalies can't. He has a 2-1-1 career record in five appearances against the Blackhawks with a .937 SV%, and in a game featuring two of the league's best offensive teams, big saves from either Rask or Chicago's goalie—most likely Darling—could be the ultimate factor in deciding a victor.
THE FINAL WORD
The Blackhawks were able to exploit weaknesses in Detroit's defense with ease on Wednesday, but they may need to play a grittier style in the offensive zone in order to get past the Bruins. Zdeno Chara is having a bounceback season after an injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign, and Boston bolstered their blue-line depth with the acquisition of veteran John-Michael Liles at the trade deadline. Julien likes to rolls his top-nine forwards, who will be more than willing to test the Blackhawks with a heavy forecheck, so smart zone exits and quick plays through the neutral zone will be key to staying out of their own end. They'll also need to avoid taking too many penalties, as Boston has two lethal units and plenty of firepower with the man advantage.