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Reigning champion Penguins a tough opening test for Blackhawks

by Emerald Gao / Digital Content Coordinator

Perhaps it's fitting that the NHL's schedule-makers decided on this opening-night clash, which has brought the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to town. In June the Pens achieved what the current iteration of the Blackhawks couldn't quite manage when they won a second straight title. Now Pittsburgh and Chicago have combined to win six of the last nine Stanley Cups, three each, making Thursday's showdown one with a significant amount of pride at stake in addition to two points in the standings.

Pittsburgh secured their first point of the season on Wednesday in a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues. Trailing 4-2 in the third period, the Pens clawed back on two goals in quick succession by Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary to even the score, but the Blues prevailed on an Alex Pietrangelo winner in overtime.

JOINING THE RANKS

The Blackhawks lost two members of their core over the summer, with Niklas Hjalmarsson being traded to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Marian Hossa being sidelined for the entire year by a medical condition. Other offseason departures included goaltender Scott Darling, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and centers Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen, creating multiple openings on the Blackhawks roster.

Murphy, a 2011 first-round pick, will be expected to log heavy minutes on the blue line, although he won't play quite as heavy a shutdown role as the one Hjalmarsson occupied. Same goes for Gustav Forsling, who showed promise in his 38 appearances as a rookie last season. Free-agent signings Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle, who left solid impressions during preseason outings, and NHL veteran Cody Franson, who earned a contract out of training camp, round out the eight-man defensive corps, which should see regular rotation in the early weeks of the season as Head Coach Joel Quenneville tests out different combinations.

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

While the blue line has been retooled, the Blackhawks' forward group looks oddly familiar again with the return of wingers Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp. Saad's return -- at the expense of Artemi Panarin -- was meant to stabilize the top line, and he'll start there alongside captain Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik. Sharp, who signed as a free agent after two years in Dallas, will begin the season on the third line, as will rookie Alex DeBrincat; the wingers hope to add scoring depth while playing with the defensively responsible Artem Anisimov.

Nick Schmaltz, who put forth of the more impressive showings during preseason, has at least temporarily taken Anisimov's place on the second line, playing with Patrick Kane and Ryan Hartman. With Jordin Tootoo on LTIR, Chicago's fourth line figures to be a combination of John Hayden, Tanner Kero, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma, the latter two also new additions last offseason.

CAGE MATCH

Although there are marquee matchups up and down the lineup whenever these two teams meet -- Kane and Toews vs. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is always a tantalizing draw even for neutral viewers, Duncan Keith and Kris Letang showing off their puck-moving, playmaking abilities -- one of the more interesting matchups on Thursday might be in net.

Pittsburgh gave up longtime starter and fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury in June's expansion draft, embracing their future in Matt Murray -- a two-time Stanley Cup champion at the age of 23. In 62 regular-season starts over his first two NHL seasons, the Thunder Bay native has put up lofty numbers, including a 41-12-5 record and a .925 save percentage.

At the Chicago end of the ice, Corey Crawford has arguably been his team's most important player over the last two seasons, a steady presence in net despite increasing shots-against averages (31.4 in 2016-17, up from 30.8 the previous year and 30.2 the season before). The 32-year-old has posted four consecutive 30-win seasons and six overall, one of just two netminders in franchise history (T. Esposito) to do so.

Their numbers at even strength are similar; Murray posted a .934 SV% at even strength, ranking sixth in the league among starters (min. 40 GP). Crawford logged a .931 EV SV%, good for eighth. Murray has never faced the Blackhawks, while Crawford has won six of his seven career starts against the Penguins, posting a .946 SV% in the process.

Murray was Pittsburgh's opening-night starter and made 30 saves on 34 shots in Wednesday's overtime loss. If Pens coach Mike Sullivan goes to his backup, the Blackhawks will instead be facing a familiar face in Antti Niemi, who signed in Pittsburgh as a free agent this past summer. Over two seasons in Dallas, the 34-year-old compiled a 37-25-11 record with a .900 SV%.

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