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So Dangerous, You’ll Have to Sign a Waiver: Blackhawks at Leafs

The Blackhawks head north of the border to face one of the top teams in the league on Saturday night.

Chicago Blackhawks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks wrap up a two-game Canadian road trip with a matchup against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Sunday evening. This is the second meeting between the two teams this season — the Leafs secured a 3-2 overtime victory on Oct. 27 — but the first since the Blackhawks’ coaching change.

While the Leafs currently have the sixth best point percentage in the league, they’ve not been at their rest recently, having lost three of their last four games. In that span, the Leafs have allowed 18 goals against, their worst stretch since late October, despite having a strong expected goals percentage (53.83). The issue appears to be more in net, but considering goaltender Jack Campbell has been carrying the load practically all season, it’s not unexpected that he’d start to burn out a bit eventually. Luckily for Campbell, he’ll be getting well-deserved rest Saturday night as Petr Mrazek will make his first start since Oct. 30.

Something that hasn’t slowed down for the Leafs over their last four games is their offense: they’ve managed three or more goals in their last four games. And they’ve accomplished that despite the absence of Mitch Marner, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury after colliding with teammate Jake Muzzin at practice on Dec. 3. Ondřej Kaše was promoted to Marner’s spot on the top line alongside Auston Matthews and has produced four points in his last four games as a result.

Speaking of Matthews, the Leafs’ offense is again driven by him with 17 goals and 29 points in 25 games. John Tavares (12 goals and 19 points in 27 games) and William Nylander (12 goals and 27 points in 28 games) round out the top three for the season.

Special teams has been a tale of two stories recently. The Leafs have been especially dangerous on the power play with two goals scored per game on the man-advantage over the last four games. But they’ve also allowed at least one goal against on the penalty kill with a success rate of just 60 percent in the same span.

The Leafs will also be without Jason Spezza (suspension) on the front end Ramus Sandin (knee) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) on the back end.

The Blackhawks will be looking to build on a 2-0 road win over the Montreal Canadiens, but it’ll be a difficult task considering the offensive prowess of the Leafs. The Blackhawks are also only 5-9 on the road this season and have been inconsistent over their 10 games, going back-and-forth between the win and loss column. It was great to see Jonathan Toews score his first goal of the season — and hopefully more will follow — but the Canadiens game highlighted the major issue with the Blackhawks currently: their inability to score more than two goals a game. Since interim Derek King took over, the Blackhawks managed that feat twice in regulation.

Overall, the Blackhawks’ 2.21 goals per game and 1.35 5-on-5 goals per game rank ranks third-last and dead last, respectively, in the NHL for the season. The good news is that the Blackhawks have continued to make strides defensively, especially when it comes to preventing quality chances against, but they need to find a way to light the lamp more without sacrificing the defensive improvement.

This topic may be reaching dead horse levels at this point, especially because the Blackhawks are finding a way to win regardless of their offensive woes, but that is neither sustainable over longer periods nor will they be likely to string together some wins at that goals rate. Look at where they are for expected goals for and against to see the imbalance:

Thankfully for the Blackhawks, they are still getting production out of their top players. In their last 10 games, Seth Jones has 9 points (1 G, 8 A), Alex DeBrincat has 8 points (5 G, 3 A), and Patrick Kane has 7 points (2 G, 5 A). The supporting cast of Brandon Hagel (5 points) and Kirby Dach (4 points) is the same as usual and then it’s Dylan Strome (3 points) rounding out the top-six producers in that span. Speaking of Strome, he will be slotting back into the lineup Saturday after being a healthy scratch against the Canadiens to replace Henrik Borgstrom, who is out with a non-COVID illness.

Newly acquired Kurtis Gabriel is considered a game-time decision. King said he specifically requested an enforcer to help “protect” teammates. While it’s fine to want to have a player take on such a role, the issue is whether that player will also be useful defensively — otherwise the fourth-line just became neutered again. Fingers crossed that Gabriel is more than a Brandon Bollig-type.

Tale of the Tape

Blackhawks — Statistic — Leafs

46.83% (26th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 52.68% (6th)

45.24% (30th) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 55.48% (3rd)

2.12 (30th) — Goals per game —3.14 (12th)

3.12 (21st) — Goals against per game — 2.50 (3rd)

48.7% (20th) — Faceoffs — 55.4% (2nd)

17.7% (20th) — Power play — 29.1% (2nd)

81.7% (14th-T) — Penalty kill — 81.0% (19th)

Projected lineups (subject to change)

Blackhawks

DeBrincat — Dach — Kane

Hagel — Toews — R. Johnson

Kubalik — Strome — Kurashev

Carpenter — Slavin — Hardman/Gabriel

de Haan — S. Jones

McCabe — Murphy

Stillman — Gustafsson

Lankinen

Fleury

Leafs

Bunting — Matthews — Kase

Kerfoot — Tavares — Nylander

Richie — Kampf— Simmonds

Mikheyev/Steevies — Engvall — Clifford

Rielly — Brodie

Muzzin — Liljegren

Holl — Biega

Mrzaek

Campbell

How to watch

When: 6 p.m. CT

Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto

TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network

Webstream: ESPN+