The Chicago Blackhawks are finally ready to drop the puck on their regular season, and they’ll do just that on Wednesday night as they welcome the St. Louis Blues to the United Center.
The Blackhawks will be looking for a measure of revenge against the Blues, as it was St. Louis that eliminated the Hawks from the 2016 postseason. That series was a classic, going seven games and ending with a thrilling 3-2 finish that saw the Blues advance and the Blackhawks head home.
This time around, the Blackhawks’ roster looks significantly different than it did last season, and they’ll be welcoming plenty of new faces to the mix. Players like Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz will be making their debuts with the Hawks on Wednesday night, and there will be many other players like Vincent Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman that will be looking to take advantage of the playing time that they’ll get this season.
Fortunately for those players, head coach Joel Quenneville seems intent on easing them into the mix this season. The second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Patrick Kane, which was such a huge success last season, has been reunited after spending much of the preseason separated, and they’ll be looking to pick up where they left off in the scoring department.
The top line will also be similar to that of last season, as Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa will once again skate together in the season opener. The new face on the line will be Richard Panik, and in limited opportunities last season, he seemed to show that he can handle the pressures of playing with the top grouping on offense.
On defense, the Blackhawks will welcome back a familiar face as Brian Campbell makes his official return to the team on Wednesday night, and the Hawks will also bring aboard two new players as well. With Niklas Hjalmarsson suspended for the team’s first game, Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny will both make their Blackhawks debuts, and both players will be looking to prove that they belong at the NHL level.
With all of that in mind, there are three keys to victory for the Hawks as they look to get their season off to a good start.
Shelter the Young Guys Early
With the way the Blackhawks’ lines are set up, the bottom six forwards are littered with young players. Schmaltz and Hinostroza will be skating on the Blackhawks’ fourth line on Wednesday, and although they will be joined up by Jordin Tootoo, it’s highly likely that Quenneville is keeping the young guys together to bolster chemistry and to shelter them from more difficult defensive assignments in their first game as NHL linemates.
The same thing could be said about Kempny and Forsling, but the learning curve will likely be steeper for both of those players. Forsling has shown a lot of great intuition and skill during the preseason, and he will be thrown to the wolves quite a bit early on. Kempny will likely be the same way, especially considering how well he played during the recent World Cup of Hockey, but it would still behoove the Blackhawks to make sure that both players get some sheltered minutes as well.
Get Off to a Strong Start Defensively
The Blackhawks’ defense was arguably its weakest area last season, and the team took great pains in the offseason to address those concerns. Adding Campbell and Kempny certainly helped, and both moves should give the Hawks the ability to roll out three effective pairings as the season gets underway.
With Hjalmarsson out of the mix however, things could get a bit more interesting on Wednesday. Trevor van Riemsdyk will slot into the lineup and play with Duncan Keith for the first game of the season, so that pairing could be in for an adventure against some of the more talented forwards that the Blues have to offer.
If the Blackhawks are going to get off to a good start, they are going to need to make sure that they are firing on all cylinders defensively from the word go, and if they can do that, then it should help ease some of the pressure on the team’s forward lines as they get settled into the new year.
The Blackhawks were looking for more offensive production out of Hossa all last season, but this year they’ll definitely be hoping that he can figure things out. With a long offseason of rest and his status as a top line winger secure for the time being, Hossa is going to have every opportunity to succeed, and Wednesday will be his first chance to strut his stuff.
One thing for fans to keep an eye on in the early going will be Hossa’s quest for 500 career goals. He currently sits at 499, so his first goal of the season will mark an important milestone, and one that not many players achieve in their careers.