The good news is that, on Wednesday, for the first time since August, there’s a Blackhawks game on TV.
The bad news is that it’s against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
That’s the Blackhawks challenge on the first night of the 2021 regular season, which starts with Chicago in Tampa to face the Lightning at Amalie Arena.
Tampa’s lineup won’t look quite the same as it did when the Lightning were hoisting the Cup in late September. The biggest change will be at the top, where forward Nikita Kucherov is missing the entire season following hip surgery. Steven Stamkos is back, though, as one of the NHL’s top snipers returns after appearing in just one 2020 postseason game because of injuries. He’ll be on the top line with Brayden Point (25 goals, 39 assists last season) and Ondrej Palat (17 G, 24 A). Other top producers returning at forward include Alex Killorn (26 G, 23 A) and Anthony Cirelli (16 G, 28 A). On the blue line, Victor Hedman is back after winning the Conn Smythe in 2020 while youngster Mikhail Sergachev provides additional offensive punch. Behind all of that is Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the most skilled — and now most paid — goaltenders in the entire league.
No, it’s not the ideal opponent for the Blackhawks to open this season, the first of 56 games that arrives without much optimism and even lower expectations thanks to the extended absences of Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews that dampened the collective mood of the fan base before training camp opened.
Back in October, the organization sent a letter to its fans, indicating that the team’s focus going forward was “developing young players and rebuilding our roster.” Many of those young players are now knocking on the door of the NHL. Adam Boqvist is back for his second NHL season, which should be his first full one. Ian Mitchell is ready for his debut after starring at Denver for three seasons. Philipp Kurashev could find his way into the lineup. Other young players with NHL experience could have larger shares of the spotlight this season, including forwards Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. But there is no place where this youth movement is more evident than in net, where the trio of Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban and Kevin Lankinen will all compete to be the No. 1 netminder of an NHL franchise for the first time in their careers. In net and everywhere else in the Chicago lineup, the way it looks before Game 1 will not be as important as the way it’ll look after Game 56.
Many of the familiar veterans are still here, too: Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy and Andrew Shaw among them. Behind the bench will be birthday boy Jeremy Colliton, who turns 36 on Wednesday. His contract status is certain after signing a two-year extension on Tuesday morning. But everything else around Colliton — most notably his viability as the long-term coach for this franchise — remains a massive question mark.
The bar remains low for the Blackhawks, with the odds of a playoff run so minimal that they’re not worth entertaining now. But there’s a difference between a team that routinely loses by a goal or two because of rookie mistakes and a team that gets run out of the building on a nightly basis. The former can be tolerated in a youth movement. The latter suggests there are bigger issues to be explored. One game won’t paint the whole picture but will start writing the chapter.
If nothing else, it should be interesting.
Let’s go Hawks.
Tale of the tape (statistics from last season)
Blackhawks — Statistic — Lightning
48.45% (22nd) — Corsi For — 52.25% (5th)
46.93% (27th) — Expected goals for — 53.73% (3rd)
2.97 (18th) — Goals per game — 3.47 (1st)
3.06 (16th) — Goals against per game — 2.77 (8th)
49.9% (17th) — Faceoffs — 50.5% (11th)
15.2% (28th) — Power play — 23.1% (5th)
82.1% (9th) — Penalty kill — 81.4% (14th)
DeBrincat — Strome — Kane
Kubalik — Suter — Pirri
Janmark — Wallmark — Shaw
Highmore — Kampf — Carpenter
Keith — Murphy
de Haan — Mitchell
Zadorov — Boqvist
Palat — Point — Stamkos
Killorn — Cirelli — Joseph
Goodrow — Gourde — Coleman
Maroon — Stephens — Volkov
Hedman — Rutta
McDonagh — Foote
Sergachev — Cernak
How to watch
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Amalie Arena; Tampa, Fla.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV