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New-look Blackhawks face tough test in season opener

by Emerald Gao / chicagoblackhawks.com

With three straight matchups against St. Louis and Nashville to begin the 2016-17 season, the Blackhawks know a string of good results this week could make all the difference in April, with the Central again looking like the toughest division in hockey. It starts Wednesday with a grudge match against the Blues-a baptism by fire for the youngest Blackhawks opening night roster in the last few years. Chicago's core, including reigning Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane and Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin reunited on a line, as well as a healthy Duncan Keith, will need to set the tone for the newer faces in what promises to be a physical, tightly contested tilt.

1. SPECIAL NIGHT
Opening night means welcoming new faces to the team and fans back to the United Center. Festivities include the annual red carpet event along Madison Street, which will begin at approximately 4:15 p.m., as well as a pregame celebration of hockey in Illinois featuring local youth hockey players. When the puck drops, the Blackhawks will get their first chance to battle the team that inflicted a first-round exit on them back in April. If last year's head-to-head record-2-0-3 in the regular season and 3-4 in the playoffs, with 43 goals apiece across 12 meetings-is any indication, Wednesday's tilt could be every bit as cagey as all other recent clashes between the two sides.

The Blues lost some toughness in the offseason with the departures of longtime captain David Backes, power forward Troy Brouwer and agitator Steve Ott, but they're prepared to rely on a bevy of young talent, including Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri, defensive standout Colton Parayko and new arrival Nail Yakupov, a former first-overall pick who was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers late last week and is expected to add depth scoring.

2. SONIC YOUTH
It's been years since the Blackhawks have allowed so many forward positions to open up between seasons, but on Wednesday night, as many as six rookies will take the ice-four for the first time in the NHL. On the back end, Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling each have a couple years of experience in European professional leagues, which should ease their transition to the North American game; Forsling in particular was a standout during training camp and the preseason slate. Among the new forwards, Vinnie Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman have both played for a spell or two with the team, while Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte are attempting to make an immediate jump after strong collegiate careers. Where they might lack experience, the new kids make up for in speed and skill, and the Blackhawks will need them to adjust quickly to the next level and help the team get off to a good start.

3. VLAD TO THE BONE
At age 24, Tarasenko has already established himself as one of the best snipers in the league, putting up 40 goals in his third full season, good for fourth in the league. He then led St. Louis in the playoffs with nine goals and 15 points in 20 games, and seems poised to lead the Blues offensively this season. The club has named him an alternate captain for the season, signifying an expectation that he'll take on more of a leadership role. Tarasenko has certainly been effective against the Blackhawks over his career, with 13 points (8G, 5A) in 15 matchups, and he's become a mainstay on the power play, where he posted 24 points last season. While the Blues have other talent among their forward lines, the offense will surely run through their most dangerous scorer, so shutting down Tarasenko's line; as of Monday he was skating with Jori Lehtera and David Perron.

4. ALL IN ON ALLEN
The Blues had a scare during last Saturday's preseason game against the Blackhawks when starting goaltender Jake Allen collided awkwardly with one of his defensemen and left the game after the first period. The club has ruled him healthy enough to start on Wednesday, however, and they are looking for the 26-year-old to grow into his role after splitting netminding duties with Brian Elliott over the last two seasons. Allen posted a career-best 26-15-3 record last season with a .920 save percentage and 2.35 goals-against average, and allowed just six goals over three outings against Chicago. Helping his cause this season will be one of the better defensive units in the conference, led by new captain Alex Pietrangelo and puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. With the blue line virtually unchanged from last season, the Blues expect to be a solid defensive team yet again.

5. CHASING 500
One unresolved storyline from last season involves the highly respected Marian Hossa, who ended the year on 499 career goals. The 37-year-old has already celebrated his 1,000th game and his 1,000th point as a Blackhawk, not to mention won three Stanley Cups with the club, and crossing this next milestone will only further cement his legacy around the NHL. Hossa did not appear in any preseason games, but played big minutes for Team Europe in their six-game run to the World Cup of Hockey final series against Canada, where he faced off against a probable opening-night linemate in Jonathan Toews. While Hossa's age-and the team's interest in preserving his health-might mean a slightly reduced role this season, he'll certainly be in a good spot on Wednesday to get that elusive 500th goal.

NOTABLE ABSENCES
CHI: D Niklas Hjalmarsson (suspended one game), LW Andrew Desjardins (lower body)
STL: LW Jaden Schwartz (elbow)

PROBABLE LINES
Panik -- Toews (C) -- Hossa
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Kane
Motte -- Kruger -- Hartman
Hinostroza -- Schmaltz -- Tootoo

Keith (A) -- van Riemsdyk
Forsling -- Campbell
Kempny -- Seabrook (A)

Crawford
Darling

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