The Blackhawks return to the scene of two of the 2021 season’s biggest crimes on Thursday night when Chicago heads to Amalie Arena for the first of a two-game set with the Lightning.
It was back in January when the Blackhawks opened the season with a pair of games here, losing by an aggregate score of 10-3 in a pair of games that saw the visitors barely resemble an NHL side. Chicago’s fortunes changed mightily over the course of the next 20 games, though.
Tampa is still the defending Cup champions for a reason though, even if they’ve scuffled a bit in March. Tampa is 4-2-1 in its last seven games with only two of those wins coming in regulation and a pair of those defeats coming against the dredges of NHL society in Nashville and Detroit. Optimism is building that Nikita Kucherov could be back before the regular season ends after he was spotted on the ice for a practice last weekend.
He won’t play against Chicago, although it’s not like Tampa needs any help. They still have a glutton of weapons, with four players tied for the team lead with 27 points this season: Steven Stamkos (14 G, 13 A), Ondrej Palat (11 G, 16 A), Brayden Point (11 G, 16 A) and Victor Hedman (5 G, 22 A). Youngster Mikhail Sergachev is not far behind with 19 points (2 G, 17 A). The top-end talent is evident. The depth scoring is strong, too, with Anthony Cirelli (8 G, 10 A), Alex Killorn (7 G, 11 A), and Yanni Gourde (8 G, 8 A). And all of that is in front of one of the league’s best goaltenders in Andrei Vasilveskiy, who has an 18-3-1 record, .932 save percentage and absurdly low 1.90 goals-against average. He’ll reportedly be in net for this one. It’s as complete a team as the NHL has right now, a large part of why Tampa fares so well in all the possession metrics detailed below.
For the Blackhawks, its first two games in Florida went poorly, with the Panthers combining for a 10-5 thumping in two games. Several of the Blackhawks season-long flaws were exposed and the safety net of stellar goaltending wasn’t there against a team sharing the top of the Central Division with the Lightning. Coach Jeremy Colliton declined to give any lineup hints during his morning media session, only suggesting that there are fingers crossed for a Dylan Strome return on Thursday or Saturday.
Jeremy Colliton says "we're hoping" Dylan Strome can get in one of these two Tampa games.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 18, 2021
With or without Strome, the Blackhawks’ performance needs a significant uptick from its last two games if it’s going to have any chance against Tampa. Chicago has shown moments of competence against the Lightning and even a brief period where it dominated this vaunted lineup during that trio of games in the United Center two weeks prior. But Tampa has virtually always found a gear that the Blackhawks could not, eviscerating any temporary leads the Blackhawks were able to assemble. Only way to change that trend is with a complete, 60-minute performance against one of the league’s best. But the Hawks have also been chasing that all season.
No better time for a first time than this time.
Let’s go Hawks!
Blackhawks — Statistic — Lightning
46.52% (30th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 51.60% (11th)
45.27% (31st) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 52.51 (8th)
3.00 (16th) — Goals per game — 3.61 (1st)
3.20 (23rd) — Goals against per game — 2.36 (4th)
46.1% (28th) — Faceoffs — 49.7% (18th)
28.3% (4th) — Power play — 28.4% (3rd)
73.1% (27th) — Penalty kill — 85.3% (5th)
Projected lineups (subject to change)
DeBrincat — Kurashev — Kane
Kubalik — Kampf — Hagel
Janmark — Soderbeg — Suter
Highmore — Wallmark — Carpenter
Keith — Boqvist
de Haan — Murphy
Zadorov — Michell
Palat — Point — Cirelli
Killorn — Gourde — Stamkos
Goodrow — Johnson — Coleman
Maroon — Colton — Joseph
Hedman — Rutta
McDonagh — Cernak
Sergachev — Foote
How to watch
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Amalie Arena
TV: NBC Sports Chicago, NHL Network
Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV