- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Bryan Bickell, forward: Bickell entered the season putting pressure on himself to duplicate his breakout Stanley Cup playoffs’ performance and justify his four-year, $16-million offseason contract. That pressure got to him, and he went the first seven games without a goal. Since being moved from the top line to the third line four games ago, Bickell has relaxed and regained his confidence. He has scored in the past four consecutive games, which was something he’d never accomplished in his career. The Blackhawks probably didn’t plan Bickell to be a third-line forward this season, but it’s ultimately about production and he’s producing right now.
2. Marcus Kruger, forward: Kruger has made strides on taking faceoffs in each of his first three NHL seasons. He had a 45.9 winning percentage (284-of-619) as a rookie in the 2011-12 season. He improved to a 46.2 winning percentage (228-of-493) last season. He looks to have improved again this season. He’s won 62-of-129 faceoffs for a 48.1 winning percentage. He’s still not where the Blackhawks want him to be, but he’s not an extreme liability at the dot, and that’s important for them with him seeing more time on the second line.
3. Patrick Sharp, forward: Sharp appears to be on the verge of putting a lot of pucks into the net. He still has just the one goal on the season, but his shots are mounting, and based on his career, it’s only a matter of time before he begins converting on those chances. In the past three games, he’s had 27 total shots, which included 14 on goal, eight blocked and five missed. He leads the Blackhawks with 45 shots on goal and is last with a 2.2 shooting percentage among players who have scored this season. He has a career 11.8 shooting percentage.
1. Nikolai Khabibulin, goaltender: Khabibulin hasn’t received a lot of work due to the Blackhawks’ schedule early on. He’s played in just two games so far. The first one, a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders on Oct. 11, went well. The second one, a 6-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, wasn’t as smooth. Khabibulin stopped 19 of 25 shots for a .760 save percentage in the loss. Not all the goals were his fault and he made a couple incredible saves, but overall he was off his game and allowed two of the team’s softer goals this season. Khabibulin will likely get a game or two to redeem himself this week, but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is keeping a close eye on him. Antti Raanta is waiting in Rockford for his opportunity.
2. Penalty kill, special teams: The Blackhawks won a lot of games last season because of their penalty kill. They ranked third in the league with an 87.2 penalty-kill percentage, and it was their penalty kill that often made the difference as they put together a 19-3-5 record in one-goal games. A year later, the penalty kill has done a flip. The Blackhawks are ranked last in the NHL with a 72.2 penalty-kill percentage and have allowed 10 goals on 36 power-play opportunities. They have held opponents without a power-play goal in just four of the 11 games. By comparison, the Blackhawks didn’t allow a power-play goal in 34 of the 48 regular-season games last season and gave up a total of 18 goals in 141 chances. It wasn’t until their 25th game they allowed their 10th power-play goal.
3. Michal Rozsival, defenseman: Rozsival was one of the Blackhawks’ defensive rocks during their Stanley Cup run last season. He stepped into the lineup full time in the playoffs and had four assists and a plus-9 rating in 23 games. That consistency has been missing this season. He has two assists, 10 penalty minutes and a minus-2 rating in five games. He stayed out of the penalty box and provided an assist in the Blackhawks’ loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, but he had a minus-2 rating and four penalties in his previous two games combined. The Blackhawks hope he can regain his playoff form because he’ll be on the ice more with Michael Kostka out 4-6 weeks with an injury.