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Blackhawks face Toronto with penalty kill a concern

by Emerald Gao /

After losing 3-2 on Friday to a rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets squad, the youngest team in the NHL this season, the Blackhawks return to the United Center to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs-the second-youngest team in the league. Chicago's goals came from rookie Tyler Motte, netting his first NHL goal off a rebound opportunity, and Richard Panik, who now shares the league lead with five tallies.

Toronto began the season with a 1-1-2 record, most recently dropping a 3-2 result on Thursday in Minnesota. They've taken 33.8 shots per game, fourth in the league entering Friday's games, a trend that has endured from last season, when Head Coach Mike Babcock arrived after a long tenure in Detroit and installed a structured, uptempo game that produced 30.7 shots per game (6th in the NHL). That the Leafs finished in a lottery spot was largely due to a season-long rash of injuries and a league-low PDO, which measures team shooting percentages and save percentages at even strength. With better luck on the injury front and improved team shooting, there's no reason Toronto shouldn't be one of the more exciting offensive teams in the league in 2016-17 and beyond.

Scoring hasn't been an issue for either team this year, with the Leafs averaging 3.5 goals per game and the Blackhawks netting 3.6, but both teams have given up goals in bunches. Chicago recovered after allowing a 4-0 lead slip to Philadelphia on Tuesday, but Toronto did the same in Winnipeg a day later and eventually lost in overtime. Some of that can be attributed to early-season kinks that will be smoothed out naturally; lack of experience could also play a part, as young players learn how to help their teams preserve a lead in the NHL. Overall, Toronto has six rookies on their roster, while the Blackhawks have five. That means up to 27.5 percent of the players in Saturday's tilt are eligible for the Calder Trophy.

The Blackhawks have shown opponents one glaring weakness so far this season: an inability to kill off penalties. They've specifically had trouble defending against shots from the point or high slot area, allowing open lanes for shots to get through and screens untouched in front of the goaltenders. Both power-play goals allowed by Chicago on Saturday were scored from the same setup; the first one was a seeing-eye wrist shot by rookie Zach Werenski that floated over Corey Crawford's shoulder, and the second one was another Werenski delivery that created a rebound for Nick Foligno to slot home.

"We know that we can play a good penalty kill," Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "We've done it before, so we have to hit the reset button and just bear down, find a way to get it done. It's losing us games right now."

With 10 goals allowed on 26 power-play shots, Crawford's overall numbers don't look too impressive, but his save percentage is a stellar .966 at even strength, allowing just three goals on 88 shots. Overall, the Blackhawks have allowed a league-high 11 power-play tallies, five more than the next team. Decreasing the number of minors taken would certainly help, as Chicago has been shorthanded 19 times already this season, but the team knows they have to do a better job when they are tasked with killing a penalty.

Video: Toews on the Blackhawks' struggling penalty kill

By virtue of finishing 23rd, 27th and 30th in the league during the three previous campaigns and ensuring high draft picks in each of those years, Toronto now boasts some of the league's most exciting young talent. It starts with Auston Matthews, the first-overall pick earlier this year, who set a league record with four goals in his debut on Oct. 12. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native added his fifth goal and sixth point of the year in Thursday's loss to the Wild, and he's found chemistry with a couple of other rookies in William Nylander (Toronto's first-round pick in 2014) and Zach Hyman (Florida's fifth-round pick in 2015). Nylander has five points in four games, one behind team leader Matthews, while Hyman has one helper and ranks first among team forwards in shorthanded ice time.

Matthews is only 19 years old, but he spent his draft year playing overseas in the Swiss National League A, where he lead with team with 24 goals and ranked second with 46 points in just 36 games; he then showed a fully mature game with Team USA at the World Championship and Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey. With several dominant performances in the NHL already this season, he can be considered Toronto's best weapon offensively, and should see plenty of ice time at even strength and on the power play.

On the blue line, 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev joined Toronto in the offseason from the KHL and has played 22:31 per night, second-most on the team; he recorded 70 points over his last three seasons in Russia. And 2015 fourth-overall pick, Mitch Marner, has found a home on Toronto's top line and ranks second behind Matthews with 13 shots on goal, although he only has one goal to show for it so far. Marner produced big numbers in the Ontario Hockey League last season, helping the London Knights win the OHL title as well as the Memorial Cup, and he has the ability to break a game wide open with his skill and vision.

While Toronto's young stars acclimate to the league, Babcock will need his veterans to be a dependable backbone for a team that hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. So far, they've done just that, with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk forming a solid top line alongside Marner. Nazem Kadri centers another veteran line with Milan Michalek and Leo Komarov, giving Babcock a lot of options up front.

On defense, Morgan Rielly-another Team North America standout back in September-and Martin Marincin make up Toronto's shutdown unit, and while none of the top four are older than 24, all have considerable professional experience (Zaitsev in the KHL).

Head Coach Joel Quenneville elected to rotate seven defensemen in his lineup on Friday, and it paid off in a roundabout way when Trevor van Riemsdyk had to leave the game late in the second period after crashing heavily into the net with his right shoulder. Brian Campbell, originally thought to be a scratch, played a more regular shift during the third period, finishing the game with four shots on goal in 12:57. The team will know more about van Riemsdyk's condition after evaluating him on Saturday, but Quenneville initially indicated that the 25-year-old could miss some time.

UPDATE, 10/22:
Per Quenneville, Hossa will return to the lineup tonight against Toronto. Scott Darling will start in net. Van Riemsdyk will miss a month, but will not require surgery.


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

Campbell -- Keith
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Hjalarsson


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