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Blackhawks host Lightning for first time this season

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What could be a first-round postseason preview kicks off with the first game of a back to back.

NHL: JAN 15 Blackhawks at Lightning
Philipp Kurashev of the Blackhawks attempts to get a shot off on Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during an NHL hockey game
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A lot has happened since the Blackhawks gave up 10 goals in two games against the Lightning on Jan. 13 and 15, the first two games of the regular season for both teams.

The Blackhawks have figured out their goaltending — they had just a .857 save percentage in those two games against Tampa Bay. Since Jan. 15, the Blackhawks have the fourth-best save percentage in the league (.921). That — in addition to their league-leading power play, which got off to a hot start with two goals against Tampa in that set — has moved the Blackhawks into fourth place in the Central division.

Meanwhile, the Lightning have maintained a steady pace and lead the Central in points percentage (.775). They have two games in hand on the Hurricanes, who also have 31 poitns after Wednesday’s games.

The Lightning are one of the three teams better than the Blackhawks in save percentage since those first two games, leading the league at .928. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s .942 save percentage is No. 1 in the NHL (among those with five or more games) and he also has three shutouts. He’s been one of the major driving forces behind the Lightning’s success this season.

He’s had to be, as the Lightning aren’t the possession-dominant squad they were in prior years. So far this season, the Lightning are 17th in the league with a 50.19 expected goal percentage at 5-on-5 (they were third last season with a 53.73). Their offense is just 14th (2.23 expected goals per 60) and their defense 19th (2.21 xG against per 60).

Yet the Lightning haven’t failed to score goals — they’re second in the league with 3.54 goals per 60 across all strengths, behind just Toronto. Even without Nikita Kucherov, who won the Hart just two seasons ago, Tampa Bay has seen impressive performances from Steven Stamkos, who has 20 points (including 10 goals) in 18 games; Victor Hedman, who has 20 in 20 games (four goals) and Brayden Point, who has 19 (seven goals) in 20 games.

Part of that is one of the league’s best power plays. The Lightning are currently ranked seventh, having scored on 26.5 percent of their opportunities. Tampa Bay also has one of the deepest rosters in the league, as all skaters but one — who played one game — and their backup goaltender have scored for the Lightning this season.

Tampa Bay finds ways to beat teams. Their offense remains one of the best in the NHL, even if they’re performing above expected. Their goaltender is currently the best in the NHL, and their power play is top 10. Their penalty kill is also the best in the NHL having killed 88.6 percent of their penalties.

These are going to be a tough three games. The bar — if it was set in those first two games — is the floor. Chicago just has to do better than that.

Tale of the Tape

Blackhawks — Statistic — Lightning

47.03% (30th) — Corsi For — 49.94% (13th)

46.86% (28th) — Expected goals for — 50.19% (17th)

3.13 (12th) — Goals per game — 3.55 (2nd)

2.87 (15th) — Goals against per game — 1.95 (1st)

47% (27th) — Faceoffs — 49% (20th)

33.3% (1st) — Power play — 26.5% (7th)

75% (23rd) — Penalty kill — 88.6% (1st)

Projected lineups

Blackhawks

DeBrincat — Suter — Kane

Janmark — Soderberg — Kurashev

Kubalik — Kampf — Hagel

Highmore — Wallmark — Carpenter

Keith — Mitchell

de Haan — Boqvist

Zadorov — Murphy

Lankinen/Subban

Lightning

Palat — Point — Johnson

Killorn — Cirelli — Stamkos

Goodrow — Gourde — Coleman

Maroon — Joseph — Colton

Hedman — Sergachev

McDonagh — Cernak

Rutta — Foote

Vasilevskiy/McElhinney

How to watch

When: 7 p.m.

Where: United Center, Chicago

TV: NBC Sports Chicago

Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.tv