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 Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks: Perhaps a Stanley Cup Final preview?
The Penguins are the defending champs and look poised to make another run. The Blackhawks are competing with the Minnesota Wild for the top spot in the Central Division and Western Conference. Combined, Pittsburgh and Chicago have won the Stanley Cup in five of the past eight seasons.
Chicago has won four games in a row and nine of 10 and looks to keep rolling when the Penguins (38-15-8) visit the Blackhawks (39-18-5) at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: How can you mention the pluses for this team without mentioning Sidney Crosby? At the 2017 Coors Light Stadium Series game at Heinz Field on Saturday, Marc-Andre Fleury was joking with Crosby after practice to save his energy for the game. Crosby went out and scored a goal, and the Penguins defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2. Crosby leads the NHL with 34 goals and has scored in three of his past four games.
Pittsburgh's big guns are having good seasons. Evgeni Malkin has 26 goals and 62 points; Phil Kessel is almost a point-per game player (56 points in 61 games) and has been perhaps even a better passer than a scorer.
Pittsburgh has one of the best goalie tandems in the League, despite the struggles of Marc-Andre Fleury. He's a proven winner and has been an invaluable mentor for Matt Murray. In what is technically his rookie season, Murray, who helped the Penguins to the Cup last season, is 23-8-3 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and three shutouts. He made 29 saves in a 3-2 loss at the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.
Video: WPG@PIT: Kessel picks the corner for game-tying PPG
Minuses: Injuries are something you can't account for. But the Penguins have had their share, especially on defense with Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta. However, general manager Jim Rutherford was proactive; he went out and acquired Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit. Someone will have to step up back there.
It's hard when you win the Stanley Cup to bring you're A game every night, but they have done a pretty good job of this. Coach Mike Sullivan told me the team set the standard for how well they played last season, and that is what we expect from them. But I like that he's managing them and is not being too hard on them when they are not at their best.
Pluses: As well as the Wild have played this season, the Blackhawks are staying close to them; Chicago is five points back. Jonathan Toews has elevated his game at the right time. He's leading the League in scoring since Jan. 15 with 26 points (nine goals, 16 assists). At the same time, the line if Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane line hasn't slowed down, and the kids are continuing to improve, something the Blackhawks need. Nick Schmaltz (six goals, 11 assists) and Ryan Hartman (15 goals, 11 assists) are showing they belong in the NHL.
Johnny Oduya was traded back to the Blackhawks from the Stars on Tuesday, and I think that's huge. Oduya won the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015 with Chicago and was a big presence defensively for them. He'll help anchor the defense and knows the system, so it should be a seamless transition for him.
Home ice advantage doesn't always mean something, but it does in Chicago. The Blackhawks are 20-8-4 at United Center this season and feed off the crowd so well.
Video: STL@CHI: Panarin sets up Anisimov for go-ahead goal
Minuses: Corey Crawford is an elite goaltender, an All-Star and a Stanley Cup champ. To me, he was a different goalie prior to having an appendectomy in December. He's been struggling since his return. Crawford has gotten wins because of the offense, but has had too many games allowing three goals or more.
I still think they need help on the wing and more production from their bottom-six forwards. That includes Marcus Kruger, Andrew Desjardins, Tanner Kero and newcomer Tomas Jurco. Chicago is seventh in goals per game (2.98), but most of the production has come from the top two lines.
The penalty kill has been an Achilles heel. Chicago ranked 28th (76.4 percent) entering play Wednesday.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Who plays head-to-head against Toews? Who tries to shut down Crosby?
2. Can the Blackhawks match the Penguins' speed game?
3. Will Chicago's kids step up?