Key Observations Heading Into Game 56 Between the Blackhawks and Penguins

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By: Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy)

The Pittsburgh Penguins are slowly but surely getting back to a healthy lineup. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff skated with the team briefly yesterday, which is a good sign. Ehrhoff was unable to take part in contact drills, but his presence on the ice was refreshing to see. He obviously will miss today’s big game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Coach Mike Johnston has actually been able to make some tough decisions regarding the lineup of late, which is a good thing. In the past few games we have seen Beau Bennett, Zach Sill and Steve Downie get scratched. Downie got scratched in Pittsburgh’s last game: a 5-4 shootout win against the Ottawa Senators. It is not known who will sit out today’s game at United Center.

There will be plenty of star power on the ice this afternoon. And for once, it feels like all of the star players on both sides will play. Most of the recent match ups between the Penguins and Blackhawks have had a star player or two injured. It doesn’t look like that will be the case today though. Four of the top thirty scorers in the league will share the ice today. Those players include Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews. All of them are having great seasons, but Kane is having the best one of them so far. He leads the NHL in points with 63 (27 goals and 36 assists). Kane and Toews owned the shootout in the last meeting on January 21st at CONSOL Energy Center, which was a 3-2 win for Chicago.

Sure, most of the attention will be drawn to Kane, Toews, Crosby and Malkin, but let’s not forget some of the other key players. Defenseman Kris Letang is having a career season under Johnston and is currently tied for the lead in points among NHL defensemen with 44 (10 goals and 34 assists). If he keeps this up, he will definitely be a finalist for the Norris trophy. Speaking of defense, let’s not forget about Chicago’s Duncan Keith, an elite defenseman. Up front, this game will also feature David Perron, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and local product Brandon Saad. Perron has been one of the Penguins’ best players since joining the team after a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. In just 17 games with the Penguins, Perron has registered 9 goals and 4 assists. He is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Pittsburgh on the team’s top line. He has adjusted to the Penguins in a very quick manner, similar to the way Hossa did back in 2008. Now at 36 years old as a Blackhawk, Hossa is still producing. In fact, not many players have been hotter than him recently. In his past 4 games, he has notched 7 goals and an assist. He has scored at least one goal in each of those last four games too.

Two Stanley Cup winning goalies will be in net too, by the way. Corey Crawford will face Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is having quite a season this year and is the key to this Penguins team, especially given the way backup Thomas Greiss has played of late. Fleury leads the NHL in shutouts with 8 and has certainly backed up the league’s decision to send him to the All-Star Game in Columbus a few weeks back.

I would provide some stats about these two teams, but hey, we know this going to be a fun one to watch regardless of any numbers. This game is full of young talent and experienced veterans that have won Stanley Cups. This is a dream match up in a Stanley Cup Final and every meeting is always a joy to watch. Sill and Downie scored Pittsburgh’s goals in the last meeting between these two teams so every player will need to step up. This would be a big statement for the Penguins, who are starting to get hot again. Beating the Red Wings and Blackhawks would be a big confidence booster for Johnston’s team.