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 will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
It's an Original Six matchup between two teams who were each a favorite before the season to win the Stanley Cup. Before the season, I had the New York Rangers coming out of the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings coming out of the Western Conference. Right now, those three teams are still in the conversation.
Chicago is in a race for the Central Division title with the Dallas Stars, and New York is in a tight battle with several other teams for the No. 2 spot in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Rangers are 5-0-1 in their past six games and are playing at home where they are 21-5-3, including 8-0-2 in their past 10 games, but the Blackhawks are one of the highest-scoring teams in the NHL.
The Blackhawks (37-18-5) visit the Rangers (32-18-6) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: The Patrick Kane line (with Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov) has been the best line in hockey. Panarin didn't need any time to transition into the NHL. Anisimov, a former Ranger, fit in right away as the No. 2 center. Who could have projected he would've been this good a player with this team? And of course there's Kane, who had a goal and three assists in a 7-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday. Kane leads the League in points (82) and is second in goals (34).
It could have been a trap game Monday against the Maple Leafs, where the Blackhawks overlooked the opposition. Not only did they come out and grab the game by the throat, but the players were so intense and even blocked 21 shots. That's not something people will talk about but it's why they've won the Stanley Cup three times in six seasons. They work hard defensively, which often creates their chances offensively.
Goalie Corey Crawford leads the League in shutouts (seven) but is often overlooked because the Blackhawks are so good offensively. But he has been great all season and backup Scott Darling has played better recently as well. Because Darling has been better, Chicago can afford to give Crawford, who is in the Vezina Trophy conversation, some nights off. Crawford has won the Stanley Cup twice, but still gets doubted by people.
Minuses: Chicago had lost three straight before the win Monday, for the second time all season. They scored four goals in the three games; Kane had one, Duncan Keith had one and Brent Seabrook had two. That's three goals by defenseman and one by arguably the best player in the League. Problem is, you can't always count on defense for scoring and they need other players besides Kane and his line to score.
The only other knock on the Blackhawks right now is their penalty killing. Since going 6-for-6 in a 5-1 win against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 6, Chicago has allowed at least one power-play goal in four straight games. In two of those games, the winning goal they allowed was on the power play. This is something they need to work on.
Pluses: Center Derick Brassard has elevated his game. Every year there has been a steady progression in his game but there is more responsibility in his game and overall, more confidence. He makes big plays at big times as evidenced by how he plays in the playoffs. It's nice to see a player continuing to progress and get better each year, and he has certainly done that. Brassard is tied for the Rangers lead in goals (19) and is second in points (42). He can score in a lot of ways, whether it's in close or from the point. Brassard is a playmaker, so there is some balance between his ability to score and to pass. He has become the offensive catalyst on the Rangers.
Going from one playmaker to another, Mats Zuccarello has been the most consistent Rangers player the past few years. He can play well with anybody regardless of his role or position. He is underrated, but not undervalued. Zuccarello is tied with Brassard (19 goals) and leads New York with 43 points.
Lastly, there's Henrik Lundqvist. He got off to an incredible start but when the Rangers started crumbling around him, he did the best he could. There were some games he wasn't at his best but when you look at his past 10 games, he's been outstanding, playing at that level again.
And a hat tip to him for passing Mike Richter and playing the most ever games in Rangers history, and for him to have the most wins for any goalie through 11 seasons in their NHL career. I was his teammate and got to see him, and it was incredible.
When the Rangers were struggling, they weren't defending quite as well. Some guys were hurt but overall, they didn't look like the Rangers defensively. It has really improved in the past few weeks, and has coincided with them spending less time in their own zone and more time making plays offensively.
Minuses: Overall, there have been so many great highs, but too many lows for a team that is this good.
When they defend well and play fast, they are the New York Rangers that are a Stanley Cup contender, but they don't always do that.
The absence of Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh has hurt, although the Rangers have been winning. Getting McDonagh, who has missed four games with a concussion and said he is ready to go, back for this game would be huge for the defense. And Nash has not been healing fast from a bone bruise he sustained when blocking a shot a few weeks ago. They've been hit by some tough injuries throughout the season, including defenseman Kevin Klein.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Goalie matchup. Lundqvist and Crawford are two of the best goalies in the League.
2. How do these teams match up? Which defensive pairing will the Rangers use against Kane's line?
3. Could this be a Stanley Cup Final preview? I don't know. The Washington Capitals may have something to say about that.