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Into the Dark: Blackhawks at Penguins preview

Chicago remains on the search for its first win of the ‘21-22 season.

NHL: DEC 12 Penguins at Blackhawks Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Blackhawks wrap up their season-opening road trip against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, still searching for their first win of the season.

The Penguins are off to a decent start, securing three out of a possible four points after their first two games — all without their big stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who are out due to a wrist injury and knee surgery, respectively. The Penguins began with a decisive 6-2 victory over back-to-back Stanley Cup winner Tampa Bay Lightning for game one and followed that up with a solid performance in a 5-4 overtime loss against rising Florida Panthers. Saturday night’s tilt against the Blackhawks will be the Penguins home opener.

The Penguins saw some decent turnover from last season, though primarily in the bottom six. The most notable forwards lost were likely Jared McCann (traded to Toronto) and Brandon Tanev (selected by Seattle in the expansion draft), both of whom were above average in their roles with the team. The blue line is mostly the same with only the loss of Cody Ceci (walked as a free agent) impacting them. For some additions to the roster, the Penguins picked up middle-six forwards Brock McGinn and Danton Heinen in free agency.

Crosby is expected to be out against the Blackhawks Saturday, meaning Jeff Carter is still acting at top-line center alongside Jake Guentzel, who drew back into the lineup after he missed the first game of the season. However, they will be without Bryan Rust: he suffered an injury after a hit from Florida’s Mackenzie Weegar early in the third period of Thursday’s game. Rust has back-to-back 20 goal seasons under his belt, so the Penguins will miss him. Zach Aston-Reese — one of the best defensive specialists in league who has been recovering from COVID — is likely to play, but Penguins coach Mike Sullivan indicated it would be a game-time decision.

As for the Blackhawks, they’re off to a decidedly worse start, failing to secure a win in either of their opening games and looking pretty poor doing it. Losing to the Colorado Avalanche — a Cup favorite by most pundits — isn’t typically something to be doom-and-gloom about, but the way in which they lost left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. That taste remained through much of Friday’s game against the New Jersey Devils as the Blackhawks were losing 3-1 until the waning minutes of the final period.

Two games is much too small a sample to gain full insight into the performances, but it’s hard not to read into some trends that were held over from the last few seasons: slow starts, lack of 5-on-5 zone time, and defensive breakdowns that leave the middle of the ice wide open.

Still, there were some positives from Devil’s game Friday, including Kirby Dach’s strong start — which was finally rewarded with a goal — and Seth Jones performing like the No. 1 defensemen he was signed to be. The Blackhawks special teams has been doing well too, with a perfect penalty kill and scoring on a respectable 3-of-8 power play opportunities. Another positive was that the Blackhawks rallied by scoring two goals in the final five minutes of the game to earn a point in the standings with that effort. But it also would have been better if they didn’t need to force momentum late with last-minute heroics.

Coach Jeremy Colliton acknowledged the Blackhawks’ lack of consistent momentum throughout the games have been an issue:

With no morning skate Saturday, the lineup against the Devils is unknown. Colliton waited most of the game before switching up his lines, suggesting he still likes how he initially constructed them and wanted to allow them a chance to build chemistry. That’s a solid strategy in the first few games, but, after losing both of them, Colliton may think it’s time to mix it up from the beginning. One change that many would like to see is Dach on a line with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane, something we saw some for a little less than five minutes in the third period against the Devils. It’ll also be interesting to see if the pairing of Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy will stay together as they had a horrible showing against the Devils despite being arguably the most defensively sound pairing on the Blackhawks.

In net, Marc-Andre Fleury is of course going to face his old team Saturday night.

Let’s go Hawks!

Blackhawks — Statistic — Penguins (numbers from last season)

45.85% (30th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 50.29% (14th)

43.96% (31st) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 49.29% (19th)

2.84 (16th) — Goals per game — 3.45 (2nd)

3.29 (24th) — Goals against per game — 2.77 (13th)

46.9% (27th) — Faceoffs — 49.3% (21st)

21.7% (11th) — Power play — 23.7% (4th)

76.8% (28th) — Penalty kill — 77.4% (27st)

Projected lineups (subject to change)

Blackhawks

Kubalik — Toews — Kurashev

Debrincat — Johnson — Kane

Borgstrom — Dach — Hagel

Khaira — Gaudette — Entwistle

de Haan — Jones

McCabe — Murphy

Stillman — Gustafsson

Fleury

Lankinen

Penguins

Jake Guentzel — Jeff Carter — Danton Heinen

Jason Zucker — Evan Rodrigues - Kasperi Kapanen

Zach Aston-Reese — Teddy Blueger — Brock McGinn

Drew O’Connor — Brian Boyle — Dominik Simon

Defense

Brian Dumoulin — Kris Letang

Marcus Pettersson — John Marino

Mark Friedman — Chad Ruhwedel

Jarry

DeSmith

How to watch

When: 6 p.m. CT

Where: PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh

TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network

Live stream: ESPN+