Who: Pittsburgh Penguins (13-10-6; 32 points, 4th in Metropolitan Division) @ Chicago Blackhawks (9-18-3, 8th in Central Division, last in NHL)
When: 8:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: National game on NBCSN
Opponent Track: It’s ugly. Very ugly. Chicago has lost 8 in a row, including a game just last night on the road in Winnipeg 6-3. In the last 11 games dating back to November 18th, Chicago has been in the lead all of 41 seconds. This season is a nightmare, and it’s not relenting.
Pens Refresh: The Pens won in New York 2-1 (shootout) to bring them up to 1-0-1 on this short three game road trip that concludes tonight.
Season series: This the first of the two out of conference matchups. The teams will meet in Pittsburgh on Sunday January 6th in a couple of weeks for the other game.
SBN Team Counterpart: Second City Hockey
Tale of the tape
—Anywhere you look, it’s just bad, bad, bad for the Blackhawks. They have the worst power play in the league. They have the 2nd worst penalty kill in the league. They’re giving up 3.75 goals per game. They’re in the bottom third of the league for 5v5 shooting and 5v5 stopping shots.
—The only sign of hope is they’re still getting a ton of shots and actually have a 50%+ Corsi for percentage. But even then, since they are literally always playing from behind (often times by multiple goals) this is probably more about score effects of the other team taking their foot off the gas rather than evidence of a good process by Chicago.
Player stats at a glance
—Patrick Kane is holding up his end of the bargain with 36 points in 31 games and leading the team in goals, assists and points. Everyone else? Ehh, about not so much.
—Youngster Alex DeBrincat (turns 21 later in the week) is another rare bright spot, on pace for 62 points this season after putting up a rookie campaign of 54 last year. He’s a very small player but shifty and skilled and one in short supply in Chicago these days.
—Dylan Strome has done pretty well with 4 goals and an assist in 8 games since a trade brought him over to Chicago earlier in the season. If they get things turned around one day they will definitely need him to play up to the potential that made him the #3 overall pick in what was a very, very good 2015 NHL entry draft.
—Duncan Keith (now 35 years old) has just 2 goals in the 112 games dating back to the start of the 2017-18 season.
—Speaking of shells of themselves, old friend Chris Kunitz with 0 goals and 2 assists on the season. Last night he played vs Winnipeg for only 7 minutes and change.
Falling behind early
Our bud Adam Gretz wrote yesterday morning about Chicago’s struggles. Keep in mind he wrote this prior to yesterday’s game against the Jets- where, wouldn’t you know, the Blackhawks ended up going down 2-0 by the time the game was 9 minutes old. It’s almost shocking just how predictably bad the script has gone for Chicago.
If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.
Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.
Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.
Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.
Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.
In other words, things are bad. Really bad.
On the flip side, the Penguins have scored 35 first period goals so far this season (3rd most in the NHL). It’s an obvious talking point that in every game you want to get out to a fast start, but in this case you have a team in Chicago who is reeling with 8 straight losses and a team that has given up the first goal of the game in the last 11 games they have played. If the Pens don’t go up 1-0 and do it pretty early, that’s going to be a negative.
Seems weird to say, since no one in the NHL is bad forever and all bad things have to come to an end at some point, right? But all signs in this contest are pointing about as obvious as they possibly can in an NHL caliber climate to Pittsburgh taking an early lead.
Lines (from last night’s game)
Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - John Hayden
Dominik Kahun - David Kampf - Patrick Kane
Alex DeBrincat - Dylan Strome - Brendan Perlini
Chris Kunitz - Marcus Kruger - Alexandre Fortin
Duncan Keith / Henrik Jokiharju
Brandon Manning / Brent Seabrook
Connor Murphy / Jan Rutta
—A lot of blah here, and this team really doesn’t even have too many injuries. Artem Anisimov did recently enter concussion protocol, but other than that CHI is relatively healthy.
—DeBrincat and Strome tore up the OHL not too long ago on the same line and are looking to recapture a bit of the magic again. The third member of that line was a guy named Connor McDavid, who probably isn’t going to be joining them anytime soon, but it’s cool to see a partial reunification of a skilled and fun line.
And now for the Pens
Infographic courtesy of the Penguins:
Lines (based off Tuesday practice)
Jake Guentzel - - Sidney Crosby - Derick Brassard
Tanner Pearson - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel
Zach Aston-Reese -Riley Sheahan -Bryan Rust
Garrett Wilson - Derek Grant - Jean-Sebastien Dea
Brian Dumoulin / Kris Letang
Olli Maatta / Jamie Oleksiak
Marcus Pettersson / Jack Johnson
Expected scratches: Chad Ruhwedel (healthy), Juuso Riikola (healthy), Patric Hornqvist (injured)
Injured Reserve: Matt Murray, Matt Cullen, Dominik Simon
—Patric Hornqvist (upper body, mentioned not to be a concussion) practiced earlier in the week but was absent yesterday. “We were hoping he would progress faster,” Mike Sullivan said. “But that hasn’t happened. Right now he’s status quo - day-to-day with an upper body injury.” Take that as you will, but probably no #72 in the immediate future.
—The top six was totally shaken up- Kessel was moved off the Crosby line after the pair was mostly quiet together in generating offense. Brassard did tally 3 assists with Sid in a game before getting hurt earlier in the year, so they’ll be looking to get that spark out of him. Brassard does have 2 goals and 1 assist in the last 4 games, so it looks like he is on the upswing a bit.
—Kessel returned to the Malkin line is probably a good idea at this point. Both big guns have been quieted as of late and have a sterling resume of success together.
—That bottom six though, doesn’t look like they’re capable of scoring too many goals. The injuries to Hornqvist and Dominik Simon will test the depth players.
The Road Ahead
The Pens’ pre-Christmas December doesn’t relent. After tonight there’s one off day followed by 3 games in 4 days starting on Friday against Boston. Luckily all 3 games will be at home (LA comes to town Saturday, Anaheim visits on Monday).
Then the Pens next week prep for another back-to-back with a quick trip to Washington a week from today on Wednesday 12/19 and then return back to the ‘Burgh to see Minnesota on Thursday 12/20. They next go to Carolina on Saturday 12/22 before, mercifully, the Christmas break gives them 4 days off.