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The Middle: Blackhawks at Coyotes Preview

Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Blackhawks will wrap up their two-game excursion in the desert by facing the Arizona Coyotes at Mullet Arena in Tempe on Monday night.

After facing several of the best teams in the league, the Coyotes are a bit closer to the Blackhawks’ level so far this season: Arizona currently has the same amount of points (6), but they’re one standing place above the Blackhawks (seventh in the Central Division) due to having played one less game. They’re coming off of two losses to the Los Angeles Kings: the first was a 6-3 loss last Tuesday, when Arizona didn’t even manage 25 shots on goal, and the second was a closer 5-4 affair but one in which the Coyotes allowed four unanswered goals in the second and third periods to be defeated at home.

In terms of players to watch out for in the Arizona forward group, Clayton Keller (4 G, 4 A) and Nick Schmaltz (2 G, 6 A) are tied for the team lead with eight points in seven games. Rookies Matias Maccelli and Logan Cooley are next up with five points in the same span, though Cooley’s points are all assists while Maccelli has knocked in one goal. Young defensemen Sean Durzi (3 G, 2 A) and Juuso Valimaki (0 G, 3 A) provide what little offensive support they can from the blue line.

Despite the points for Cooley being pretty solid — he’s tied for fourth in rookie scoring with Connor Bedard, Boston’s Matthew Poitras, and Nashville’s Luke Evangelista — he was benched for much of the Coyotes third period against the Kings Friday with a message to round out his game more.

As for a potential Arizona lineup, there was only a slight change in between Sunday practice and the lines rolled against Los Angeles: Lawson Crouse was taking rushes with Maccelli and Nick Bjugstad on the second line while Alex Kerfoot moved down to the third.

Cooley, who didn’t practice due to an illness, is expected to play against the Blackhawks on Monday night. Travis Dermott also missed practice with the same illness and isn’t expected to play on defense.

One area of concern for the Blackhawks on Monday should be how their penalty kill will fare against the Coyotes’ power play, converting at a rate of 26.7 percent and sixth-ranked in the league. Close to half (8) of the Coyotes goals (19) have come with the man-advantage, so it’ll be important for the Blackhawks to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. Otherwise, Arizona has pedestrian offensive numbers with just 2.71 goals per game — though that’s still better than the Blackhawks’ 2.25 rate.

One other thing the Blackhawks will need to watch out for is Connor Ingram in net. His seasonal save-percentage is low at only .889, but that’s due to one bad outing in a small sample: he’s had two games with a save percentage at or over .922, and one in which he was pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots. Also, in his other two outings against the Blackhawks historically, Ingram has a .933 save percentage, so the game could come down to which Ingram shows up in net.

The Blackhawks are admittedly a team still searching for their identity. They’re not a particularly skilled team, outside of a few players, but they’ve managed to win a a few games — including their last one against the Vegas Golden Knights — through hard work and competitiveness. In that last game, the Blackhawks went down early as Vegas scored twice in the first four minutes of the game, but the team in red evened things up with goals from Ryan Donato and Bedard before the first period was over. After a scoreless second, the two teams traded goals in the third period (the Blackhawks goal coming from Taylor Raddysh), before Philipp Kurashev scored 2:50 in overtime while on the power play to make it 4-3. The win ended a three-game losing streak for the Blackhawks and cut the defending Stanley Cup champions perfect win-record to seven games.

That victory was arguably made possible partially because the Golden Knights were not playing their best, including mismanaging the puck quite often, but credit the Blackhawks for exploiting those issues and really turning it up in the third period to come out on top. It’s difficult to imagine this Blackhawks team ever being more skilled than most of their opponents, but playing smarter and with a higher work ethic is always possible.

On Sunday, the Blackhawks recalled defenseman Isaak Phillips from the Rockford IceHogs to replace the injured Alex Vlasic. It was reported a little later that Vlasic, who took a high hit in the Vegas game, was sent back to Chicago and is currently in concussion protocol.

Phillips was a player that many — including himself — thought would make the Blackhawks roster out of camp, but the performance of Wyatt Kaiser (and two slots being filled by basically anthropomorphic sloths on skates in Jarred Tinordi and Nikita Zaitsev) meant that there wasn’t room for Phillips. The circumstances of his recall are sad, but it’s a great opportunity for Phillips nonetheless.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Phillips will just slot into the empty space created by Vlasic; instead, according to the lines/pairings at Sunday’s practice, it appears he’ll be replacing Kaiser and the bottom pairing will be both Tinordi and Zaitsev. Obviously, a pairing at practice doesn’t absolutely mean that’s how the players will roll in the game, but it’s frustrating to see Kaiser being taken out in favor of those cement blocks regardless. It’s also surprising as coach Luke Richardson had nothing but praise for Kaiser (and Kevin Korchinski) after the Vegas game:

Outside of the defense pairings, only one other change was made to the lineup since the Vegas game, and that is Andreas Athanasiou slotting in place of Boris Katchouk on the fourth line. It’s still a bit confusing why Athanasiou sat in the first place and now being delegated to the bottom line instead of playing with Lukas Reichel, who could definitely use the offensive support as he searches for his first point of the season.

Speaking of Reichel, there have been a lot of calls for the center experiment to be over — or at least placed on hold — to focus on getting him going offensively, and there’s merit to the argument that the best way to do that would be to unite him with Bedard. Some of us at SCH (hi, it’s me) have been wanting this for a while, but it’s starting to be a topic among other media that report on the Blackhawks:

It’ll be interesting to see if Reichel can get out of his offensive funk himself or if a shift to wing — the position he was drafted as, mind you — is coming, even if it doesn’t happen in Arizona.

How to Watch

When: 9 p.m. CT

Where: Mullet Arena, Tempe

TV: NBC Sports Chicago

Webstream: ESPN+/Hulu

Radio: WGN 720