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Blackhawks need to tighten defense against high-powered Oilers

by Eric Lear / Chicago Blackhawks


The Blackhawks will face off against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday for the first of two meetings in a span of 10 days, and the two teams share some similarities. Both squads have struggled lately; Chicago has lost two straight and four of the last five, while Edmonton has just two wins in its last seven games. The Oilers and Blackhawks both sit in sixth place in their respective divisions, and they both are missing important players due to injuries (Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa for Chicago; Connor McDavid and Justin Schultz for Edmonton). The Blackhawks beat the Oilers twice in three games a season ago, outscoring Edmonton 11-7 in those contests.


The Oilers were one of the most talked-about teams this offseason because of Connor McDavid, the team’s fourth first-overall pick since 2010. The 18-year-old lived up to the hype early on by producing nearly a point per game—five goals and seven assists in 13 games—but is now out indefinitely with a broken clavicle, the same injury Patrick Kane had last year. In his absence, Edmonton will rely on fellow youngster Leon Draisaitl to step up. The 20-year-old, who is now skating on the top line with leading scorer Taylor Hall and the newly healthy Jordan Eberle, has seven points (3G, 4A) in just four games this season. That means Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has dropped down to McDavid's slot in the second line alongside Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov, trying to replicate the chemistry that the trio was able to forge.


The Pittsburgh Penguins did something on Friday that most of Edmonton’s opponents haven’t so far this season: They kept Hall off the scoresheet. Prior to coming up empty in that game, Hall had put together a point streak of six games, including four straight multi-point outings, and the Calgary native has amassed 12 points in his last seven games. Just 14 games into the season, he’s nearly halfway to his goal total from a year ago (14), although he did play in just 53 games last season due to injuries. Hall had two points in two games against the Blackhawks in 2014-15 and has compiled 21 points in 15 career games against Chicago, including a hat trick.


While Hall’s been hot, Kane’s been hotter. In fact, only two players in the league have more points than the Blackhawks' former first-overall pick. Kane scored his ninth goal of the year on Friday in Chicago's 4-2 loss in New Jersey and trails only Dallas captain Jamie Benn (10) for the league lead; his 19 points put him behind Benn (20) and Stars teammate Tyler Seguin (21). Kane hasn’t played a full 82-game season since the 2011-12 campaign, but he’s been incredibly productive regardless. Last season he tallied 64 points in 61 games, the year prior he netted 69 points in 69 games, and in the strike-shortened 2012-13 season he had 55 points in 47 games played.


Five Blackhawks have made their NHL debuts this year—two defensemen and three forwards—and on Friday, Tanner Kero became the third to score his first goal, following Artemi Panarin and Viktor Svedberg. Late in the game with the goaltender pulled, Kero took a feed from Panarin, stickhandled in front of the net and beat Cory Schneider on the backhand. The 23-year-old Michigan native has now played five games with the Blackhawks after an impressive start to the season with Rockford. In seven games with the IceHogs, Kero scored a team-high six goals, bringing his AHL career total to 11 goals in his first 13 games.

In order to get back in the win column, the Blackhawks need to play better defense. In the last two games, they’ve allowed a total of 10 goals, surely to the ire of the defensive-minded Joel Quenneville. Missing the Norris Trophy-caliber play of Duncan Keith and the Selke Trophy-level two-way game of Marian Hossa are a big reason for the dip, but the Blackhawks won’t make excuses. The Oilers, who carry a -6 goal differential this season, do have the potential to score in bunches, especially with the talent on their top two forward lines, so if the Blackhawks can clamp down defensively they should be able to light up the scoreboard against a team that’s allowed 43 goals in 14 games, second-most in the Western Conference.

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