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Blackhawks get Hjalmarsson back for Preds showdown

by Emerald Gao /

The Blackhawks did not begin the 2016-17 season the way they wanted, losing 5-2 to St. Louis at home on Wednesday after surrendering three power-play goals and being limited to 19 shots on goal-including just 3 in the second period. After the game, captain Jonathan Toews told reporters that "our energy, our speed and work ethic wasn't quite there." While one game isn't nearly enough of a sample size to draw conclusions from, the schedule doesn't get any easier over the weekend, with a home-and-home series against the Nashville Predators.

Nashville ranked in the top five last season in both adjusted Corsi and adjusted Fenwick (measuring shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts at even strength), a testament to their mobile defensemen and effective transition game and are returning the bulk of their team. Young forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen should lead the way offensively, enhancing a veteran-but by no means aging-core. Meanwhile, the Predators have one of the most complete blue lines in the league, making Chicago's job even harder on Friday. The clash at Bridgestone Arena should be fast-paced and produce plenty of scoring opportunities, and the Blackhawks will need to show more structure and discipline in order to secure their first points of the season.

Around the hockey world, the most talked-about trade of the summer was the one that sent former Nashville captain Shea Weber to Montreal in exchange for former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, trading Weber's physicality for Subban's dynamic offensive ability. Fellow Preds defensemen Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis are highly effective puck-movers in their own right, but Subban adds even more firepower in that area while also bolstering Nashville's special teams. And while Weber gave Nashville an undeniable intimidation factor on the back end, Subban's game is more suited to the type of high-tempo style that Head Coach Peter Laviolette has instilled over the last couple of seasons, and he could prove to be the X-factor that elevates the team into true Stanley Cup contenders.

The Blackhawks aren't known for getting into penalty trouble a lot, but Wednesday's game was an obvious exception. Three consecutive minors at the end of the second period, when the team still held a 2-1 lead, left the Blackhawks without three top penalty-killers in Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov and Duncan Keith, and the Blues capitalized with their second and third power-play conversions of the night. Chicago ranked 22nd in the NHL last season (80.3 percent) on the PK, and without the services of defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, it was always going to be tough. But even with Hjalmarsson set to re-join the lineup for Friday's tilt, the Blackhawks know they can't put themselves in tough spot against the Predators by leading the same type of procession to the penalty box.

Among the new Blackhawks faces, Wednesday's season opener was a bit of a mixed bag, but despite the lopsided scoreline there were bright spots. In their NHL debuts, Michal Kempny, who at age 26 does have plenty of KHL experience, looked solid in 18:44 of ice time, while 20-year-old Gustav Forsling played 2:33 with the man advantage and 15:29 overall. Ryan Hartman, Chicago's first-round pick in 2013, combined with linemates Tyler Motte-also playing in his first NHL game-and Marcus Kruger on the team's second goal. Motte also joined Kruger on the top PK unit, taking the place of the injured Andrew Desjardins. Head Coach Joel Quenneville did limit his bench in the third period with the team trailing, but expressed that he wanted to see more from his young charges.

"We'd like to play everybody a little more," Quenneville said after the game, "and not our top guys as much."

Hjalmarsson's return and a less ornery opponent means a couple of lineup changes are likely in order for Friday's contest. Trevor van Riemsdyk, who took two minor penalties and skated alongside Duncan Keith (Hjalmarsson's regular defensive partner), could be the odd man out on the blue line, but Quenneville did not confirm one way or another after Thursday's practice: "Some days are going to be tougher decisions than others, but we'll see." He also reiterated that he preferred to dress just six defensemen per game, and lineup rotation could be performance-based.

Video: Joel Quenneville discusses defensive pairings

The team practiced without Marian Hossa on Thursday, rolling out the following lines: Toews-Panarin-Panik, Anisimov-Motte-Kane, Kruger-Rasmussen-Hartman, Hinostroza-Schmaltz-Tootoo.

CHI: Andrew Desjardins (lower body)
NSH: none


Panarin -- Toews -- Panik
Motte -- Anisimov -- Kane
Hartman -- Kruger -- Hossa
Schmaltz -- Hinostroza -- Tootoo

Keith -- Hjalmarsson
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Campbell



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