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Blackhawks face Maple Leafs in home opener

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It’s the first game of the season from 1901 W. Madison Street.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Chicago Blackhawks David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The undefeated Chicago Blackhawks will make their United Center debut on Sunday night, returning home to face the John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tavares was, by far, the best free agent available this summer and Toronto brought the center back to his native Ontario on a 7-year, $77-million deal. That signing meant Toronto would lose a few of its depth scorers during free agency, with James van Riemsdyk returning to Philadelphia and Tyler Bozak moving on to St. Louis. But the Tavares signing trumped all of those moves. Adding Tavares to an already-loaded forward group consisting of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner made Toronto another of the popular picks for a deep postseason run and perhaps that elusive Stanley Cup — which Toronto hasn’t won since 1967. And the Maple Leafs could be even better if William Nylander — another talented youngster and son of former Blackhawk Michael — resolves his current contract dispute with the team.

But the blue line remains questionable in Toronto. Morgan Rielly appears to be everything Toronto hoped he’d be when they drafted him fifth overall in 2012. Behind him, though, there are a lot of “buts.” Jake Gardiner remains a consistent offensive threat but a liability in the defensive zone. Nikita Zaitsev seems like an NHL-worthy defenseman but may not be quite at the level Toronto needs him to be for a deep run. Ron Hainsey is here, but he’s 37 years old. All of that is front of goaltender Frederik Andersen, who had decent numbers in the regular season (.918 save percentage, 2.81 goals-against average) but was lit up by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs last year. Andersen may still be broken because of what Jonathan Toews did to him in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Backup Garrett Sparks is expected to be in net for Toronto tonight after Andersen started last night in a 5-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators that likely had some segments of the Toronto fan base prematurely reaching for the panic button.

For the Blackhawks, they’ll turn to Anton Forsberg in net after Cam Ward notched victories in his first two outings, including Saturday night’s 5-4 overtime win at St. Louis. Toews led the way again in that game, scoring a hat trick that included the game-winner. Through two games, it looks like Toews has found the fountain of youth — or perhaps he’s just getting rewarded with the goals that weren’t coming despite his impressive possession metrics over the last few seasons. Either way, it’s an encouraging sign through the first 120 minutes of play this season.

Other lineup changes are possible with Chicago on the tail end of a back-to-back, including the season debuts of forward John Hayden and free agent signing Brandon Davidson on the blue line. Andreas Martinsen and Jan Rutta, respectively, seem like the logical substitutions.

It’s two teams playing their second game in as many nights while having to travel to Chicago following the first game on Saturday night, and each team is playing its backup goaltender. The Blackhawks are riding high after a win over a division rival, while the Leafs are reeling a bit after a loss to the NHL’s expected basement dweller. Can’t see a reason why either of those arcs should shift course on Sunday night.

Lineups

Blackhawks

(Forsberg expected to be in net)

Maple Leafs

(From Saturday’s game vs. Ottawa, expect Sparks in net over Andersen)

How to watch

Start time: 6 p.m. Central

Location: United Center, Chicago

TV: NBC Sports Chicago