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Blackhawks face Panthers, new coach in return to UC

by Emerald Gao / chicagoblackhawks.com

Tuesday marks the Blackhawks' first game at the United Center since Nov. 13, as the team completed a 3-3-1 Circus Trip that featured ups and downs. The roster did suffer some injuries at the beginning and end of the journey, but Chicago did get important contributions from key players and newcomers. Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin shared the club lead with five points each in seven games, while Ryan Hartman tallied a team-best three goals.

The Blackhawks' homecoming opponents will be the Florida Panthers, who are on the second stop of a season-long six-game road trip that has begun under a shroud of uncertainty. Following a 3-2 loss on Sunday in Carolina, Gerard Gallant was relieved of his head coaching duties, which will be assumed in the interim by General Manager Tom Rowe.

Under Gallant, the Panthers began the season 11-10-1 and currently sit in fifth place in the Atlantic Division, with injuries a big culprit for the team's inconsistencies. While only top-line center Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Alex Petrovic currently remain on IR, Florida also lost veteran Jussi Jokinen for a couple of weeks in late October, and top-six forward Nick Bjugstad was out of action from the start of the season until Nov. 22, and is still playing a somewhat limited role.

The Blackhawks and Panthers split the season series in 2015-16, with both teams winning at home; Kane and Brent Seabrook led the team with three points each in Chicago's 3-2 win on Oct. 22.

YOUNG AT HEART
The Panthers boast a number of young, talented forwards in their core, with six forwards aged 24 or under. Leading the charge is 21-year-old Aleksander Barkov, who leads the team with 12 assists and ranks second with 14 points in 22 games; he has six helpers over the last five games and recorded the game-deciding shootout winner on Nov. 26 against Columbus. Vincent Trocheck, 23, has been impressive as well, ranking second on the team with six goals this season. Rookie Denis Malgin, a 2015 fourth-round pick, has eight points in his debut and adds speed and creativity to Florida's bottom six. Of course, on the other end of the age spectrum is 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who has two goals and three assists over his last five outings after a slow start to the season.

Four members of the active blue line are also 24 and under, while Keith Yandle is the oldest at age 30. Playing in most situations is 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad, who is averaging a team-high 23:05 per game; he shares third among NHL defensemen with six goals this season, including two in his last four games, and shares 21st overall with 66 shots on goal. Rookie Michael Matheson has also contributed seven points (2G, 5A) in 21 games.

FREE AGENTS OF CHANGE
Florida was one of the most active teams in free agency over the summer, landing big names like defensemen Jason Demers (2G, 6A in 22 games) and goaltender James Reimer (who has started nine games to Roberto Luongo's 14). But two unheralded signings have also made a huge impact on the team thus far. Jonathan Marchessault, an undersized 25-year-old who played parts of the three previous seasons with Columbus and Tampa Bay, is one of 15 players in the league to hit double digits in goals, netting 10 while also leading the club with 17 points and ranking second with 59 SOG. The team's injury situation granted him top-six minutes, and he's certainly taken advantage of the situation. Colton Sceviour, a 2007 fourth-round pick by Dallas, signed as a free agent and has contributed nine points in 22 games with his new club, including his first career hat trick on Oct. 30 in Detroit.

BREAD RISING
Panarin ended the Circus Trip on a three-game point streak, scoring Chicago's only goal in a 2-1 loss to San Jose off one of his patented one-timers from the left circle, before adding assists against Anaheim and Los Angeles. The 25-year-old has been a beacon of consistency in his second NHL season, aside from a three-game stretch without a point to begin the season. Since then, Panarin has gone more than one game without finding the scoresheet just once. He shares eighth in the league with 21 points (8G, 13A) in 23 games this season, as of Monday afternoon.

NOTABLE ABSENCES
CHI: Jonathan Toews (upper body, questionable), Trevor van Riemsdyk (upper body)
FLA: Jonathan Huberdeau (achilles), Alex Petrovic (ankle)

LINES

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

Keith -- Hjalmarsson
Campbell -- Seabrook
Forsling -- Rozsival

Crawford
Darling

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