Pittsburgh Penguins (20-9-0-40) vs. Chicago Blackhawks (17-6-3-37)
Where: Mellon Arena When: Saturday, December 5, 7:30 p.m. Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9 TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576. *View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here() Season Series: This will be the only regular-season meeting in 2009-10 between the Penguins and Blackhawks. The two teams played an entertaining matchup at the United Center on Feb. 27 of last season, the first game of the Penguins’ season-saving five-game road trip where they went a perfect 5-0. Pittsburgh defeated Chicago 5-4 in overtime on an Evgeni Malkin power-play goal. Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz, playing his first game with Pittsburgh, each registered a goal and an assist. Jonathan Toews allowed Chicago to earn a point with his first career hat trick in a losing effort.
Contain Hossa: His goalless effort in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final with the Detroit Red Wings notwithstanding, former Penguin Marian Hossa has feasted upon his former club in the past. In 36 regular-season games Hossa has 42 points (10G-32A) against Pittsburgh, including a clutch insurance goal for the Wings in the third period on Feb. 11 of last year in their 3-0 victory over the Penguins.
Stay on the Points: If the Penguins wingers sag too low in the defensive zone and lose coverage on the Chicago defense, Pittsburgh could be in for a long night. The Blackhawks are one of two teams (Philadelphia is the other) with four defensemen with double-digit points, led by Duncan Keith’s 23. Also lighting up the scoreboard for Chicago are Brian Campbell (14 points), Cam Barker (12 points) and Brent Seabrook (12 points).
LOWDOWN ON THE BLACKHAWKS
Chicago missed the playoffs nine of 10 seasons beginning with the 1997-98 campaign but their fortunes began to turn with back-to-back selections of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in 2006 and ’07, respectively. The Blackhawks have improved from 71 points in ’06-07, the year before the duo made their NHL debuts to 88 points in ’07-08 to 104 points and a Western Conference Finals loss to the Detroit Red Wings last year. Thursday marked a historic day for the Blackhawks as they announced matching five-year contract extensions for Toews and Kane in addition to a 13-year deal for 26-year-old blueliner Duncan Keith.
After a 1-2-1 start to last season the Blackhawks parted ways with franchise icon Denis Savard and brought in highly-respected Joel Quenneville as his successor. The former St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche head coach guided Chicago to a 45-22-11 record the rest of the way. The Blackhawks defeated Calgary and Vancouver in six games each before falling in five games to the Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals. Quenneville picked up his 500th regular-season victory in Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Chicago brought in three forwards during the offseason, including checking-line center John Madden and former Detroit Red Wing Tomas Kopecky, but their marquee addition was a man who has built a healthy dislike among Pittsburgh fans – former Penguin Marian Hossa. A key addition for General Manager Ray Shero at the 2008 trading deadline, Hossa was a fan favorite at Mellon Arena when he registered 12 goals and 14 assists during the 2008 postseason playing next to Sidney Crosby as the Penguins came within two games of defeating Detroit for the Stanley Cup. But the relationship did not last long after Hossa left the Penguins to sign a one-year deal with the Red Wings less than three weeks after the conclusion of the ‘08 Final. He was booed and viciously taunted during his return to Pittsburgh on Feb. 11 of last season. Hossa scored 40 goals during the regular season for Detroit in ’08-09, but he tallied only six times in 23 playoff contests, including a goose egg against the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final rematch.
Hossa’s signing overshadows an underrated move by the Blackhawks to bring former New Jersey Devil John Madden on board. Madden is one of the better forwards in the game at shadowing opposing superstars. He always seems to play good against the Penguins, registering 22 points (10G-12A) in 55 games. He scored a career-high four goals against Pittsburgh on Oct. 28, 2000. Kopecky set career highs across the board in his sophomore campaign with six goals, 13 assists and 19 points one year ago, but has struggled in Chicago, scoring once and adding two assists in 26 games.
Thanks to the recent contract extensions for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews the Blackhawks have their top-three offensive superstars locked into long-term deals following the 12-year contract given to Marian Hossa in July. Kane and Toews have served as the co-faces of the franchise after both debuting during the 2007-08 season. Kane is the high-flying, electrifying puck-dazzler capable of embarrassing defensemen with his stickhandling moves. He led Chicago with 48 assists and 77 points last year and sits on top of the Blackhawks scoring charts again in ’09-10 with team-leading totals of nine goals and 26 points through Friday. Although he has only six goals in 20 games this year, Toews is the goal scorer of the two, having notched a team-high 34 tallies in ’08-09. In his second year as the captain of the Blackhawks, Toews has proven to be a top-notch defensive forward in addition to his goal scoring exploits. He ranks 10th (tied) in the league with a plus-11 rating and has two assists while Chicago is shorthanded. Following offseason shoulder surgery Hossa didn’t make his Blackhawks debut until Nov. 25 at San Jose, when he scored twice, including one shorthanded. He has two goals and two assists through four games.
The Blackhawks’ offense is more than just their “Big Three.” Chicago stole Patrick Sharp from the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 5, 2005 when they acquired him and former Penguin Eric Meloche in exchange for Matt Ellison and a third-round draft choice. All Sharp has done in Chicago is develop into a consistent point producer and a guy with a legitimate shot to make the Canadian Olympic roster. Sharp has a hard and accurate wrist shot which has allowed him to post goal totals of 36 and 26 the previous two campaigns. He is tied for second on Chicago with eight goals through Friday. Nobody in hockey defines the term “power forward” more than the man they call “Big Buff,” Dustin Byfuglien. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound defenseman-turned-winger is impossible to move from the front of the net, where he has scored a majority of his 46 career goals. Byfuglien is also plenty physical, having registered a league-high 78 hits through the conference finals during the 2009 postseason.
Chicago is loaded with powerful and bruising wingers to complement their finesse superstars. Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager are three bangers who have supplied the Blackhawks with offense in addition to their physical play. The 24-year-old Brouwer has seen increased top-six minutes in ’09-10, his second full season with the team. After netting 10 goals and 26 points a year ago, he is already halfway to those totals with seven goals and 13 points through 26 games, putting him on pace to score 23 times this year. Ladd, who turns 24 Dec. 12, underachieved in Carolina, but the former fourth-overall selection in 2004, two spots after the Penguins selected Evgeni Malkin, has began to fulfill his potential with 15 goals in ’08-09. Eager is best known to Penguins fans for being pummeled by Gary Roberts during the ’07-08 season when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he has managed to score 11 times for Chicago last year.
Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell headline a top-six defensive core as talented as any in the NHL. Keith, who will spend his next 13 years in Chicago, is a rock for the Blackhawks, averaging 26:44 of ice time per game, second only to San Jose’s Dan Boyle. Keith ranks fourth among all blueliners with 23 points (5G-18A) in 26 contests. He ranked fourth in the league last year with a plus-33 rating and currently serves as an alternate captain. Campbell, a big-ticket acquisition for Chicago last offseason, supplies some of the most breathtaking skating ability from the defense position. His numbers are down slightly in ’09-10 (1G-13A in 26 games) and his work in his own zone might be considered spotty, but make no mistake Campbell is a threat when the puck is on his stick. Campbell can often be found below the top of the circles when the Blackhawks establish a presence down low in the offensive end.
Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook might not receive the same attention as the other two, but each of these former first-round selections packs a wallop at 6-foot-3, 220-plus pounds. Chicago used the third-overall selection in 2004 to nab Barker and the 23-year-old completed a gradual maturation process to earn full-time minutes last year. He posted 40 points (6G-34A) in 68 games and has 12 points (4G-8A) in ’09-10, but still needs to work on playing more consistently in his own zone. Seabrook is the more complete player of the two, ranking second on the Blackhawks with a plus-11 rating. He is well on his way to a career year offensively with 12 points (3G-9A) in 24 games. Seabrook’s goal in the 11th round of the shootout on Tuesday night gave Chicago a 4-3 victory over Columbus. Depth defenders Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Sopel are both better than the average No. 5 and 6 defensive types.
The offseason departure of Nikolai Khabibulin entrenched Cristobal Huet as the starter between the pipes after the two shared the duties in ’08-09, with Khabibulin serving as the No. 1 option during the postseason. Huet’s play was spotty in his first year with Chicago although he did finish with a 20-15-4 record, 2.53 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage. He was pulled from the Feb. 27 loss to the Penguins after surrendering four goals on 22 shots through two periods.
After a slow start to the season Huet has rebounded to give the Blackhawks quality, if undervalued, netminding. He boasts a 13-5-2 record and the same .909 save percentage he posted last year while sporting a 2.16 goals-against average which ranks tied for fourth in the league.
Finnish product Antti Niemi, who made his NHL debut against the Penguins last year when Huet was pulled, serves as the backup. In six starts the second-year pro has a 4-1-1 mark, 1.85 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage to go with his two shutouts.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: KRIS VERSTEEG
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews garner much of the attention in the Windy City but 23-year-old Kris Versteeg has proven to be more than a supporting actor. A finalist for last season’s Calder Trophy, Versteeg has taken advantage of the opportunity the Blackhawks have provided after he was acquired from the Boston Bruins organization for Brandon Bochenski on Feb. 3, 2007.
Versteeg is one of the best all-around young stars in the game as he is a threat to score shorthanded in addition to five-on-five and during the power play. During the past two seasons Versteeg has scored 30 times, including nine power-play tallies and six more goals shorthanded. The Blackhawks fourth leading scorer last season with 53 points (22G-31A), Versteeg is not afraid to bang in the corners or head to the front of the net. His eight goals through the first 25 games rank second (tied) on the team while his 16 points are tied with Toews for fourth-best.
Chicago is playing without two of their key grinders. - Abrasive winger Adam Burish tore the ACL in his right knee during the preseason and will be sidelined for up to six months. - Center Dave Bolland, quietly becoming one of the top checking line centers in the NHL, is out three-to-four months following back surgery to repair a herniated disk.
"THEY SAID IT"
"I've been in a lot of great places. I've been fortunate, worked with good teams and great players."
- Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville on the Blackhawks official team website after winning the 500th game of his coaching career in Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
POINT OF INTEREST
6: Chicago’s league-leading shorthanded goal total through Thursday. The Blackhawks scored their first three goals down by a man during a 7-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 25.