After three successful outdoor games this season, it's only fitting that the NHL ends the first annual NHL Stadium Series with a matchup between two of the league's most popular franchises.
On Saturday the Chicago Blackhawks will try to keep pace atop the Central Division standings while the Pittsburgh Penguins look to solidify their hold on the Eastern Conference's top playoff spot in what should be an entertaining outdoor game at snowy Soldier Field in Chicago.
The defending champions have more or less continued the dominance over the Western Conference they began early last season, with a few bumps along the way.
Chicago didn't exactly start the season on the same record-setting pace as they did last spring, but they enjoyed a healthy lead over their Central Division foes for most of the first half of the year. It wasn't until the last month or so that Chicago started playing inconsistent hockey. A run of minor cold and hot streaks finally cost them when the St. Louis Blues overtook Chicago for the top spot in the division before the Olympics.
The problem has been the offense. While Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews have enjoyed relatively successful seasons, scoring consistently has become an issue lately. While Corey Crawford has just allowed eight goals in his past five starts, he's gone 2-2-1 thanks to a lack of goal support. A grinding, sloppy outdoor game probably isn't what the Blackhawks need, though if any team has the creativity to make things happen outdoors, it's Chicago.
Pittsburgh may lead the Eastern Conference, but the ride has been extremely rough this season.
Injuries have decimated the Penguins roster all year long. Brooks Orpik missed a handful of games. Evgeni Malkin missed almost two weeks. Pascal Dupuis is done for the season with a knee injury. No one knows if Kris Letang will play again after he suffered a stroke two months ago. Even Beau Bennett, who was expected to step up and fill an offensive hole this season, will miss about four weeks with an injury.
And yet, the Penguins have found a way to win. It's a testament to their coaching and their depth, to be sure. But most of the credit has to go to Sidney Crosby. It's amazing that Crosby hasn't won the Hart Trophy in 2007, but that streak will surely end after his stellar performance this season. Crosby leads the league with 80 points in 59 games and is the catalyst for much of Pittsburgh's success this season. He's the straw that stirs Pittsburgh's drink, and they'll lean on him heavily on Saturday.
Five Questions to Answer
1. Which Team Canada leader plays better?
Just a week ago, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews were celebrating together after winning a gold medal for Canada in Sochi. Now they'll square off in the faceoff dot all night long on Saturday. Both have had success in outdoor games before, but this is the first time either player has played against each other. That alone makes the game in Chicago a must-watch event on Saturday.
2. Can Matt Niskanen continue to shoulder the offensive load on the blueline?
The former Dallas Stars punch-line has blossomed under Dan Bylsma's system, providing much of the offense from the back end that the Penguins were missing with Letang out of the lineup. As the most offensively-gifted defenseman on the roster, Niskanen knows his role on Saturday is to push the puck up the ice and make things happen. We'll see if he's as effective outdoors.
3. Who steps up for Chicago?
As we've already mentioned, the Blackhawks haven't exactly been scoring in bunches lately. A big contribution from their depth guys would go a long way towards jump-starting their offense. Will the likes of Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger get things going on Saturday?
4. Will Kane and Malkin erase their Sochi memories?
Kane and Malkin have enjoyed successful seasons in North America, but they struggled to make a difference for their respective countries in Sochi. Maybe an outdoor game is just what they need to break their slumps.
5. What kind of performance will we get out of the goalies?
The starting netminders in this game have wildly different histories in big games. Crawford backstopped Chicago to a Stanley Cup last year, while Marc-Andre Fleury has built a reputation as someone who struggles to show up when the games matter the most. It's not a playoff game, but the NHL Stadium Series has become a pretty big deal this season. Will the goalies follow the same old script?
|2014 NHL Stadium Series :: Chicago|
1st in Metropolitan Division
Penguins blog: Pensburgh
Blackhawks blog: Second City Hockey
|Saturday, March 1, 2014 :: 8 p.m. ET / 5:00 p.m. PT|
|Soldier Field :: Chicago, Illinois, USA|
|Coverage of every Stadium Series game|