The Blue Jackets saw their seven-game winning streak snapped on Thursday night, but they’ll look to start another one on Saturday against another of the league’s hottest teams, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks have won 13 of their last 15 games and currently sit atop the Central Division.
Perhaps more impressive than their recent stretch of winning hockey is who has been missing from the roster during most of the run. Patrick Sharp, who has scored 30-plus goals four times in his career, was out of the lineup for 14 games due to a leg injury and rejoined the team on Dec. 9. Goaltender Corey Crawford (foot injury) has been out since Nov. 29 but will return Saturday and start against the Blue Jackets. That didn’t necessarily mean more work for backup netminder Antti Raanta, who has won all four of his starts in Crawford’s absence.
The Blackhawks have two of the league’s best players in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, with both playing their best hockey of the season. They also have one of the strongest defense pairings in the league, with Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook patrolling the blue line together and a fixture for the club since their Stanley Cup title in 2010.
Overall the only element of the Blackhawks game that is surprisingly average is their power play, currently ranked 16th in the NHL. That doesn’t matter as much when you dominate 5-on-5. The Blackhawks’ Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 is 54.8, easily the league’s best.
The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets met late last season on Apr. 4, a 4-3 Chicago win at Nationwide Arena. It was an entertaining back and forth affair, with both teams trading punches until Ben Smith won it late for the Blackhawks. Derek MacKenzie opened the scoring for the Blue Jackets a minute and a half into the contest, and Jeremy Morin, now a Blue Jacket but then a Blackhawk, tied the score for Chicago later in the period. Ryan Johansen’s go-ahead goal in the second was matched by Partrick Sharp and Marian Hossa’s goal was answered by an Artem Anisimov tally.
The punch-for-punch battle went down to the wire, when the Jackets were whistled for a too many men with 21 seconds left. Smith buried the loose puck on a goal mouth scramble with 3.9 seconds remaining to seal Chicago’s 13th straight win over the Blue Jackets. Columbus maintained a one-point lead in the wild-card race, which they’d wrap up four days later in Dallas.
Marian Hossa is 35 years old and is still a threat whenever he's on the ice. He’s not on pace to hit his 30-goal and 60-point totals of last season, but he is still tremendously dangerous when facilitating offense for Toews and Brandon Saad. Hossa has three goals and an assist in his last six games, but is a lethal shorthanded threat as well. Hossa has 30 shorthanded goals in his career, 20th on the NHL’s all-time list and he’s at east four years younger than anyone else in the top-30. With two Stanley Cups and over 1,000 points, with a few years still to play, we watch Hossa both because he’s an impact player and because we don’t see a player like him everyday.
Patrick Kane has been tearing it up for Chicago during their streak. Kane has seven goals, and 11 points in Chicago’s last 11 games, and two of those goals have been game-winners. Only one of Kane’s goals have come on the power play, proving that Chicago doesn’t need the man-advantage to do damage. What Kane lacks in size he makes up for in speed, and he has one of the best wrist-shots in the game. Kane also has a wicked back-hand shot that he can release in stride and off the rush better than any player besides Sidney Crosby. The Jackets will have their hands full with Kane, especially when they need to keep Jonathan Toews at bay on another line. Kane’s offense makes the Blackhawk attack extremely balanced.
Tough assignments for top defense pairs
They’re the hottest players on their respective teams, with Foligno having a tremendous run during the Jackets’ point streak. Foligno has five goals and seven points in the last five games, with many of those goals coming at important points in the game. Foligno has registered tying goals, overtime winners, and has overall been a player who controls momentum. Kane has been no different, but has been the catalyst of an offense that scores in bunches. Both are going to draw strong defensive matchups, and Foligno’s ability to break through will go a long way towards helping the Jackets. With these two forcing matchup decisions for Joel Quenneville and Todd Richards, we’ll see what secondary scoring options emerge.