Having endured plenty of transition and adversity since defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks seem to be getting closer to regaining their championship form.
The Blackhawks vie for a third straight win Saturday night at the United Center in their first meeting with Tampa Bay since Game 6 of last season’s Cup Finals.
Chicago’s current roster hardly resembles the one that ousted the up-and-coming Lightning in June for its third title in six years, with salary-cap constraints forcing offseason trades of key forwards Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg and contributors such as Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette all departing via free agency.
Patrick Kane’s ongoing legal problems have presented another challenge, as has Duncan Keith’s recent knee surgery that will sideline the top defenseman for 4 to 6 weeks.
Kane’s potential distraction hasn’t affected his play. The star forward has amassed five goals and five assists through seven games after scoring once and assisting on two goals in Wednesday’s 3-2 home win over Florida.
Brent Seabrook also had a goal and two assists as Chicago (4-3-0) successfully handled its first game without Keith, the leader of a defense corps that limited Steven Stamkos to one assist in last season’s finals.
”Anytime he’s not out there, it’s definitely, you miss him,” Seabrook said. ”But, like I said, I think the guys stepped up. They did a good job. The defense did a good job of playing together.”
Artem Anisimov, acquired from Columbus in the Saad deal, scored in a second straight game and is second to Kane with three goals, while rookies Artemi Panarin (8 points) and Viktor Svedberg also have helped soften the blow of the defections.
Tampa Bay (5-2-1) has had periods of inconsistency as well despite retaining the nucleus from last season’s team. The Lightning won their first three games, then lost three of four before posting a 4-3 victory Friday at Winnipeg on Ondrej Palat’s goal 36 seconds into overtime.
"I think that game turned out pretty much the exact way it should have," Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the NHL’s official website. "It should have gone to overtime, and somebody is going to get fortunate."
Victor Hedman registered his third assist on the game-winner and has five in two games. Stamkos has five goals in his last seven but fellow center Tyler Johnson has yet to score after netting 29 goals last season.
Ben Bishop had a season-high 33 saves but allowed at least three goals for the third time in four outings. He’s started every game this season and may get the call again Saturday with regular backup Andrei Vasilevskiy still sidelined by a blood clot.
Current backup Kevin Poulin appeared in one game for the New York Islanders last season.
Bishop posted a 2.31 goals-against average in the Cup Finals and stopped 28 shots in a 4-0 home win over the Blackhawks on Feb. 27, avenging Chicago’s 3-2 shootout victory at the United Center on Nov. 11.
Tampa Bay faces Corey Crawford for the first time since his 25-save performance in Chicago’s 2-0 Game 6 victory, capping an outstanding series in which he compiled a 1.69 GAA and yielded two goals over the final three wins.
Crawford has been sharp as well during the present winning streak, surrendering three goals on 41 shots against Florida and Columbus.