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Lankinen starts as Blackhawks enter crucial February stretch before daunting March schedule

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Four games this week give the Blackhawks a chance to find their footing before the schedule gets significantly tougher.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Blackhawks will close out their 6-game, 11-day road trip through the Central Division this week with a pair of games against the Blue Jackets, starting with Tuesday’s 6 p.m. start from Nationwide Arena.

It’s been a roller-coaster ride of a month for Columbus, featuring endless drama both on the ice and in the locker room. Lately, it’s been more of an in-game soap opera, with the Blue Jackets fluctuating between flashes of competence and moments of catastrophe. Since beating the Blackhawks 6-5 on Friday, Feb. 11 Columbus has lost to the Blackhawks 3-2, lost 7-3 to the Hurricanes, recovered briefly in a 3-0 win over the Predators before losing 4-2 to those same Predators on Saturday.

That last game saw start Elvis Merzlikins sustain an upper-body injury that will have him out for both games this week, with Joonas Korpisalo likely to handle the net each night. Korpisalo’s numbers (.889 save percentage, 3.46 goals-against average) lag behind Merzlikins (.917 SV%, 2.81 GAA), which is bad news for a team with a coach that continually decries his team’s lack of attention on the defensive end of the ice.

The last two games against Nashville were especially ugly for Columbus, at least from a possession perspective. Columbus had just 39.58 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 in a win over Nashville, then saw that number plummet to 32.29 in the next game. The expected goals percentage dropped from 46.94 in the victory to a comically low 25.15 in the defeat. Of course, that didn’t stop the Blue Jackets from posting expected goals shares of 62.44 and 65.75 percent, respectively, in the two aforementioned games against the Blackhawks. Despite Columbus being one of the worst possession teams in the league, they still generated a higher quality of chances against Chicago in each of those games.

And that’s part of what makes this week’s games so crucial for the Blackhawks. As discussed at this site recently, the team hasn’t fared well at 5-on-5 despite the positive results and some notable younger players have showed signs of regression over the last few weeks. This week, Chicago has two games against a mediocre Columbus team and then two more against a scuffling Detroit side at home. After that, the schedule gets ugly in March:

  • Three games at home against the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning
  • Two on the road against the defending Western Conference champion Stars
  • Two on the road against the Central Division-leading Panthers
  • Two more against Tampa on the road
  • Two more against the Panthers at home

That’s about as brutal of an 11-game stretch as the NHL schedule can generate in this abbreviated season. Chicago’s mettle will be tested heavily in that span, and any signs of improvement during the next four games will be necessary doses of optimism heading into that challenging stretch.

So let’s get two quality points this evening, eh?

Let’s go Hawks!

Tale of the tape

Blackhawks — Statistic — Blue Jackets

45.80% (29th) — Corsi For — 45.70% (30th)

45.45% (27th) — Expected goals for — 45.33% (28th)

2.89 (18th) — Goals per game — 2.84 (19th)

2.84 (19th) — Goals against per game — 3.32 (26th)

47.3% (26th) — Faceoffs — 45.0% (29th)

32.2% (5th) — Power play — 15.2% (23rd)

80.0% (12th) — Penalty kill — 73.8% (26th)

Projected lineups (subject to change)

Blackhawks

DeBrincat — Suter — Kane

Hagel — Wallmark — Kubalik

Strome — Soderberg — Janmark

Kurashev — Kampf — Carpenter

Keith — Mitchell

de Haan — Boqvist

Murphy — Zadorov

Lankinen/Subban

Blue Jackets

Laine — Roslovic — Atkinson

Jenner — Texier — Foligno

Grigorenko — Stenlund — Bjorkstrand

Robinson — Nash — Domi

Gavrikov — Jones

Del Zotto — Peeke

Harrington — Carlsson

Korpisalo

Kivlenieks

How to watch

When: 6:00 p.m.

Where: Nationwide Arena

TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network

Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV