Two days after dispatching the incumbent Stanley Cup winners in a historic 10-1 win, the Blackhawks will try to keep their (very) early momentum rolling when they face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.
Last season Columbus finished third in a stacked Metropolitan Division with 108 points, one of four clubs along with Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington to reach 50 wins. A first-round exit at the hands of the eventual champions didn't dim the outlook for a team that features plenty of young talent and is anchored by a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky.
Columbus opened their season on Friday night with a big win of their own, blanking the New York Islanders 5-0. Pittsburgh's team performance suffered on Thursday on the second night of a back-to-back, and the Blue Jackets will need to play with more structure and better execution to avoid a similar fate. Backup netminder Joonas Korpisalo is likely to see action after Bobrovsky made 29 saves on Friday, although the starter has not been confirmed yet.
Thursday's Three Stars of the Game consideration could have been extended to half of the Blackhawks roster, but if there was one group that stood out, it was the line of Nick Schmaltz, Patrick Kane and Ryan Hartman. Crazy Eights, the All-American Line -- whatever you want to call them, they set the tone on Thursday with four of the team's 10 goals; Hartman set an opening night franchise record with a career-best five points (1G, 4A).
The trio started the glut of scoring 6:21 into the game, as Hartman connected with a no-look, behind-the-back pass from Kane behind the Pens' net. Kane also set up both of Schmaltz's goals on pinpoint cross-ice passes and picked up a backhand goal of his own from a seemingly impossible angle. With Chicago's forward combinations in flux after multiple roster changes over the summer, the early returns on the new-look second line have impressed even Head Coach Joel Quenneville, who isn't prone to effusive praise.
"It was amazing watching their speed," he said after the game on Thursday. "Playmaking, patience in the offensive zone, be it off the rush, in zone, cross-ice passes, they were doing it all. It was one of those nights where they were outstanding, and they all complemented one another, found open spaces and hit those middle holes. It was a great start for them."
Schmaltz did leave the game in the third period with an apparent lower-body injury, but was back at practice on Friday, and Quenneville confirmed he would be available for Saturday's tilt.
Video: Schmaltz on chemistry with Kane, Hartman
IN THE WINGS
As it turns out, Brandon Saad's hat trick during a preseason matchup on Sept. 21 was just a sneak peek. The 2011 second-round pick proved his ability to fit right back into a lineup he occupied for the first three seasons of his career by becoming just the second player in team history to tally three goals on opening night. It was a familiar sight for Blackhawks fans, not just the goals themselves but the way that Saad scored them -- by going to the net, jumping on rebounds and generally establishing his presence in dangerous areas.
Saad's direct playing style is a contrast to that of the winger he was traded for -- Artemi Panarin, who's known more for his perimeter play and ability to get off a dynamic shot. The 25-year-old is making a quick return to the United Center after being sent to Columbus in late June. He ranked second on the Blackhawks last season with 74 points in 82 regular-season games and totaled 151 points (61G, 90A) in 162 career appearances with Chicago.
Panarin made an auspicious Columbus debut on Friday, collecting three assists and showcasing plenty of chemistry with linemates Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg. The line was responsible for three of the Blue Jackets' five goals and will see plenty of offensive zone time in Chicago.
Aside from Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets' biggest assets are the young defensemen who -- when healthy -- are more than capable of jump-starting transition plays and getting involved in the offensive zone. The oldest blueliner on the roster is 30-year-old Jack Johnson; the rest are all 26 and under, and three -- Ryan Murray, Seth Jones and 2017 Calder Trophy finalist Zach Werenski -- were top-10 draft picks.
Murray, in an injury-limited year, notched 11 points in 60 regular-season games, while Werenski led club defensemen with 47 points (11G, 36A), followed by Jones with 42 points (12G, 30A). Both Murray and Werenski tallied in Friday's win over the Islanders, and Jones picked up a helper.
Dealing with the mobility of Columbus' blue line, especially the top pairing of Werenski and Jones, will be one of the main challenges for the Blackhawks in Friday's tilt.