After ringing in the New Year on the road, the Blackhawks return to the United Center for a four-game homestand, which kicks off with a rare back-to-back over the next two nights. Thursday's opponent will be the Buffalo Sabres, who began 2017 with a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers on Tuesday, just the second win in their last eight outings. With 36 points in the standings, Buffalo shares the worst record in the Eastern Conference, and they're looking at a lottery draft pick for the fifth consecutive year, which wasn't the plan coming into this season.
The Blackhawks are looking to refocus after a 4-1 loss to St. Louis in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2, their fifth loss in six games, a trend that has allowed Minnesota to close the gap in the Central Division to just one point with four games in hand. Injuries to key players have limited Chicago's ability to execute their preferred puck possession style of play over this last stretch. They've scored just eight goals in the last five games, while often ending up on the wrong side of the shot differential.
While Corey Crawford has been strong in net since returning from injury, and special teams have been effective, the Blackhawks know they'll have to go back to generating scoring chances and applying pressure to opponents at even strength in order to hold off the likes of the Wild and the Blues in the back half of the season.
The Blackhawks will get reinforcements from two sources on Thursday. Marian Hossa, who has been out of commission since leaving the Dec. 20 game against Ottawa, suited up for practice on Wednesday and expects to return to action against Buffalo. Despite the time missed, Hossa still shares the team lead with 16 goals, including four game-winners, this season, and his return to the top line should give the team more two-way balance up front. He'll join captain Jonathan Toews as well as the Blackhawks' newest call-up, Spencer Abbott.
The 28-year-old has just one NHL game under his belt, a brief appearance with the Maple Leafs in 2013-14, but has been a proven scorer at the American Hockey League level. At the time of his recall, Abbott led the team with eight goals and shared the club lead with 21 points; he has 169 points in 217 career NHL teams, as well as 35 points in 42 regular-season games with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League in 2015-16.
Video: Lear's Look: Abbott's second chance
With injuries limiting many of the team's top forwards -- including Jack Eichel, Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly -- throughout the early season, the Sabres haven't enjoyed much stability on the offensive end. One of just seven forwards to have appeared in all 37 games so far this season has been 21-year-old Sam Reinhart, who has been one of the team's more consistent performers in recent weeks. The 2014 second-overall pick ranks second on the team with 15 assists and third with 23 points, recording eight points (2G, 6A) in his last seven games while centering the second line. Reinhart picked up a pair of helpers against the Rangers, and Buffalo hopes he can continue developing alongside Eichel (who has two goals and three assists over a four-game point streak), giving the club a promising 1-2 punch down the middle for the future.
Another youngster who's been a reliable point producer for Buffalo this season is defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. The 22-year-old leads the team with 22 assists, which ranks fifth among NHL blueliners, as well as 14 power-play points, third among league D-men. In just his third full campaign, he also ranks fifth overall in the league with 26:42 of average ice time, including more than 20 minutes at even strength and more than 3 minutes of both power play and penalty kill, which means the Blackhawks' top players can expect to see a lot of Ristolainen on Thursday.
CHI: Marcus Kruger (upper body, IR)
BUF: Ryan O'Reilly (abdomen), Josh Gorges (hip), Johan Larsson (wrist), Dmitry Kulikov (back), Tyler Ennis (groin), Cody McCormick (leg)
Abbott -- Toews -- Hossa
Panarin -- Anisimov -- Kane
Hartman -- Kero -- Panik
Desjardins -- Rasmussen -- Hinostroza
Keith -- van Riemsdyk
Kempny -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Hjalmarsson