Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have been two of the best teams in the NHL this season and for the past decade.
Chicago has won the Stanley Cup three times since 2010 and has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for nine straight seasons. The Penguins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, recently qualified for the 11th straight season. Each team is also competing for the Presidents' Trophy. The Penguins and Blackhawks each have 103 points, five behind the Washington Capitals for the top spot.
Chicago has lost two straight games, getting outscored 12-4, and concludes a three-game road trip in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have lost three straight (0-1-2) including two at home, where they are 29-5-4 this season.
The Blackhawks (48-21-7) visit the Penguins (48-21-7) at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T.; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: We know on a nightly basis their stars will be their stars: Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith. You can also add Marian Hossa (24 goals) to that list. Along with Artem Anisimov and Richard Panik, those six Blackhawks forwards have each scored at least 20 goals this season, showing how balanced they are.
Secondly, their young players are starting to grow. Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz in particular have made an impact on the forward group, and Panik has played very well all season and has been an integral part of their success. He has 21 goals and 20 assists.
The Blackhawks really stepped on the gas pedal to catch the Minnesota Wild and pass them in the Central Division and Western Conference. They're seven points ahead after trailing for much of the season. Hopefully for them, they are able to keep rolling in the playoffs and not have a letdown.
Video: CHI@TBL: Kane cranks a wrister past Vasilevskiy
Minuses: They've had two sloppy games in a row. Chicago was defeated 7-0 by the Florida Panthers on Saturday and followed that up with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning after blowing a 4-1 lead. The Blackhawks have lost three straight games twice all season, and playing two poor games in a row is uncharacteristic of them.
The loss of Anisimov is big. He's missed two weeks with a lower-body injury that likely will keep him sidelined until the playoffs. Anisimov with Kane and Panarin was one of the best lines in the League. They have been experimenting with Schmaltz at center but it's really hard to lose your No. 2 center and not be affected.
Pluses: It's no surprise they're led by Sidney Crosby (42 goals, 40 assists), who trails Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid by seven points for the NHL scoring lead. Crosby hasn't slipped since he missed the first six games of the season. He makes everyone around him better.
In spite of all the injuries on defense, they're playing good hockey. No Kris Letang, the MVP of their 'D' core, no Trevor Daley or Olli Maatta or Ron Hainsey and they are still ticking. They've put different players in different spots who have produced, like Justin Schultz.
They're also playing at home in front of their fans, where as we already mentioned they're pretty dominant.
Video: PIT@WPG: Schultz rips a slapper top-shelf for PPG
Minuses: Despite how well they are playing and the contributions they've been getting from everyone, not having Evgeni Malkin is a setback. Malkin hasn't played since March 15 because of an upper-body injury but still ranks second on the Penguins in goals (33) and points (72). Injuries have limited Malkin's play this season, but he's fifth in the League in points per game (1.16). We know Malkin isn't a No. 2 center, although he is on the Penguins.
The Penguins have played a lot of hockey in the past year. When you count the playoffs last season (24 games) and the World Cup of Hockey 2016 for some of these players, it has to be pretty exhausting. Crosby told me that he thought playing for Team Canada was a benefit for him since it would prepare him for the season, but there's no doubt it's physically and mentally draining.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Is Chicago able to exploit Pittsburgh's defense?
2. How does the loss of the No. 2 center impact each team?
3. Will Justin Schultz be able to lock down the Blackhawks' forwards?