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 New York Rangers, two Original Six teams, are heading in opposite directions. Chicago had a 4-1 lead against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday before allowing four goals in the second period of a 7-5 loss, has lost three of four and has eight wins in 18 games, very un-Blackhawk like. The Rangers have won six straight and have been bolstered by their offense and speed.
Chicago has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in nine straight seasons; New York has made it in seven straight. It's a little early, but neither team would qualify if the playoffs began today.
The Rangers (9-7-2) look to make it seven straight wins when they visit the Blackhawks (8-8-2) at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m., NBCSN, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: They've found the goal light at the offense end, scoring at least four goals in seven of their past eight games. Part of the reason is because the power play has been cooking, going 6-for-12 in the past four games. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk has five power-play points in the past seven games, a stretch in which he has 10 points (three goals, seven assists).
Mika Zibanejad (eight goals, 10 assists) has stepped into the No. 1 center role. Forward Pavel Buchnevich (eight goals, seven assists) has a three-game goal streak. Rick Nash has four goals in four games. As a result of the offense, they haven't had to rely on Henrik Lundqvist as much, and coincidentally, he's played much better.
Lastly, speed is a staple of this team. The Rangers win when they play the speed game, highlighted by forward Michael Grabner who has eight goals. He could get 30 this season after scoring 27 in 2016-17.
Video: CBJ@NYR: Grabner buries Miller's unbelievable dish
Minuses: The Rangers have played 18 games -- 13 at home (most in the League) and five on the road (tied for fewest in the League). They're 2-3-0 away from Madison Square Garden, and although they were a League-best 27-12-2 on the road last season, having to play that many more road games than home games the rest of the way could hurt them.
Their team defense has been better, but that's what ailed them early on and it still needs work. They're giving up too many shots, too many chances, and can't except Lundqvist to bail them out every game.
Lastly, when they don't play fast, they are not the same team. The Rangers have to start the game fast. Too many games early in the season, they'd allow a goal and play from behind right away. That's why they started 3-7-2. New York needs to spend the least amount of time possible defending and get on the attack quickly.
Pluses: The good news for the Blackhawks is that all their superstars -- forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook -- are healthy. That being said, they haven't had consistent production from any of them except Kane. Everyone looks at Seabrook being a defensive guy, but I view him as more than that. He's scored plenty of big goals in the playoffs. You know these guys have the ability to score; they just need to start scoring.
Despite being pulled on Sunday after allowing six goals in two periods, Corey Crawford has been one of the best goalies in the League this season. He's 7-7-0 with a 2.21 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and two shutouts. He is their horse, and I expect him to have a better effort against the Rangers.
Rookie forward Alex DeBrincat was a stud with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League, but has gotten off to a slow start this season. He may be starting to find his groove offensively with three goals in two games and four goals in five games. He's making plays, too. He's not just scoring but is getting it done with his passing as well.
Video: NJD@CHI: Crawford turns aside Hall on breakaway
Minuses: Some of their key cogs have to be more productive. Forward Patrick Sharp was expected to be much more of a contributor. I would have had him good for 20-25 goals, but he has two in 18 games. It's not like he's not capable. They are counting on his production. But that can be said for most of their players - young forwards Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz and all these other guys, Chicago is counting on them to play minutes and produce. Chicago's bottom-six forwards haven't been good this season.
For all the explosiveness the Blackhawks have, they rank in the bottom five in the League in power-play percentage (14.3 percent). They were 0-for-12 in three games and were in a 2-for-33 slump before going 2-for-3 against the Devils. It's tough to win games when your special teams aren't clicking.
Chicago has lost four of its past five at home. They Blackhawks have generally been a dominant home team, having won 26 games at United Center in each of the past two seasons. They came out strong against the Devils with a four-goal first period, but it was all downhill from there. They can't let that happen against the Rangers.
Three things to watch
1. Can the Rangers use their speed, and will the power play continue to produce?
2. Will the Blackhawks' stars take over the game?
3. Which team's younger players will rise up?