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Blackhawks to battle Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets

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Chicago looks to sweep the season series against Columbus and improve to 9-1-0 in its last 10 games.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks welcome Artemi Panarin and the Blue Jackets back to the United Center for the first time since October 2017. Both teams enter the Saturday night clash trending up and fighting for their postseason aspirations. The Blue Jackets have won four out of their last five games, and the Blackhawks are 8-1-0 in their last nine games.

Columbus is sitting in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 67 points, but are being chased by the Penguins and Hurricanes. Although the Blue Jackets are in the thick of a playoff race in the Eastern Conference, most of the chatter about the team is focused on the future of pending unrestricted free agents Panarin and two-time Vezina trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky.

With the trade deadline coming up on Feb. 25, general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen is preparing to make some franchise altering decisions. Kekäläinen has to decide if he wants to sell two of their top players to strengthen the franchise’s prospect pool or keep them for the Blue Jacket’s playoff run and risk losing them to free agency for nothing in return.

On the other hand, Chicago’s recent seven winning streak and ascension up the Western Conference Wild Card standings has made it hard to predict what general manager Stan Bowman will do at the trade deadline. Last month, all signs pointed to the Hawks being sellers. However, with the playoffs within reach and team president John McDonough voicing his desire for a playoff run, Bowman is preparing to find a way to improve the Hawks’ playoff chances without leveraging their future.

The recent surge by the Blackhawks has been propelled by Patrick Kane’s 16 game point streak, in which he has amassed a remarkable 35 points (12 goals, 23 assists). Three of those points led the Hawks to a 5-2 victory over the Devils on Thursday night. Kane’s point streak has firmly entrenched him in a competition with Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov for the Art Ross Trophy, which is given to the league’s leading scorer at the end of the season.

In addition to Kane’s MVP-level production, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, and Dylan Strome have all significantly contributed to an impressive stretch of offensive firepower. In their last nine games, the Hawks own a 4.89 goals-per-game rate, which is nearly two goals better than the league average of 3.05.

Although the offensive creativity and talent has shined during the nine game stretch aforementioned, the Hawks have been getting bailed out by their netminders, Cam Ward and Collin Delia. In their last four games, the Hawks have given up 43, 37, 45, and 43 shots. If the Hawks want to make a serious run to the playoffs, giving up that many shots per game is not sustainable, especially against teams that are playoff bound and contenders.

Not surprisingly, Panarin is pacing the Blue Jackets with 64 points (22 goals, 42 assists). He was a gifted scorer in Chicago, and has only improved his offensive skillset in Columbus. The “Breadman” is on pace for 97 points, which would shatter his career high of 82 last season. The other Blue Jackets to keep an eye on are speedy winger Cam Atkinson, who has 31 goals this season, and All-Star defenseman Seth Jones, who is fourth on the team with 35 points and leads the team in ice time by averaging 25:54 minutes per game.

Bobrovsky and Ward are expected to start in net for their respective teams. For those curious about Corey Crawford’s status, he told reporters Friday that he feels healthy and ready to play, but could still use a few more practices to get his timing back. Jeremy Colliton said there is still no timetable for his return, but his return is surely getting close.

As trade rumors continue to swirl around Columbus, the Blackhawks look to make it six straight home victories and continue their journey to a wild card berth.

*Lineups subject to change

Blackhawks

Caggiula - Toews - Kane

DeBrincat - Strome - Kahun

Saad - Anisimov - Sikura

Kunitz - Kruger - Perlini

Keith - Seabrook

Dahlstrom-Murphy

Koekkoek - Gustafsson

Ward

Delia

Blue Jackets

Panarin - Dubois - Atkinson

Foligno - Jenner - Anderson

Duclair- Wennberg - Bjorkstrand

Sedlak - Nash - Hannikainen

Murray - Jones

Werenski - Savard

Harrington - Nutivaara

Bobrovsky

Korpisalo

How to watch

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: United Center, Chicago

TV: NBC Sports Chicago