The Tampa Bay Lightning will face a much different Chicago Blackhawks team tonight when they start a three-game set at the United Center than the one they saw during the opening week of the regular season.
In two wins to start 2020-21, the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning were in complete command in a 5-1 victory Opening Night January 13 and again two days later in a 5-2 win January 15 over the Hawks. Tampa Bay built multi-goal leads in each and, save for a stretch in the second period of game two when Chicago cut the Lightning advantage to 3-2, the Bolts never seemed in danger of losing either game.
But Chicago has rebounded well since going 0-3-1 on a Florida swing to start the season. The Blackhawks have won more games than they've lost with a 12-7-4- record and are in fourth place and, more importantly, a playoff position in the Central Division both by points and point percentage.
Before the season started, not many prognosticators had Chicago as one of the four playoff teams advancing out of the Central Division, but they're solidly in a playoff spot currently.
"They're a lot more confident team," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following his team's morning skate in Chicago Thursday afternoon. "They had a few guys in there that are fairly new to the NHL and guys that I think everybody in the league was unaware of. We're aware of them now. Good on them, good on their coaching staff. After they went through that Florida swing, I think they were taking a little bit of undue criticism, which clearly Chicago knew what they were doing. Still with a couple heavyweight players out of the lineup, they've really fought their way back into a great spot in the division. Good on their team, good on their coaching staff, definitely going to be a much different team these three games than we saw a month and a half ago, whatever it was."
When the Lightning played Chicago at the start of the season, the Bolts had the benefit of bringing back nearly the same group that lifted the Stanley Cup in September of 2020. There was less of a learning curve for the Lightning because everybody already knew their formula for success.
The abbreviated training camp didn't give Chicago much of a chance to work new players into their system before starting the season and the early results reflected that.
Now that they've found their identity, Chicago has been playing really good hockey of late, going 10-3-1 over their last 14 contests.
"It's harder for teams with all the new blood to do well early on when you only have seven days of practice," Cooper said. "They've had to kind of grow during the season. A lot of their growing pains actually fortunately for us was early in the season. The first two weeks of the season is basically a training camp for them. It just took a little longer for them to grow, and they've done a good job."
The Lightning saw Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia in net for the Blackhawks in those first two contests, but it's been the emergence of a third goalie, Kevin Lankinen, that's sparked Chicago too. In 15 games, Lankinen has gone 9-3-3 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He's played to a 7-2-1 record over his last 10 starts.
Chicago scored a power-play goal in each of the two meetings earlier against Tampa Bay and has found considerable success with that unit throughout the season, connecting on 33.3 percent of its power plays, the best power-play percentage in the NHL currently.
That'll be a significant test for a Lightning penalty kill that has gone 17 straight opponent power plays without allowing a goal and is ranked second in the League.
The Lightning begin a back-to-back set against Chicago tonight and have swept both ends of a back-to-back in their two previous opportunities.
Tampa Bay enters Chicago having won five games in a row, the longest active win streak in the NHL and the second-longest this season for the Bolts.
To push that run to six games, they'll have to be ready for a much-improved Blackhawks squad that is 6-3-1 on home ice.
"They play a fast, skilled game," Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. "They have a younger team and tons of speed. That's how they play, and we just have to match that."
Video: Jon Cooper | Pregame at CHI
Video: Mikhail Sergachev | Pregame at CHI