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You can go home again

The Arizona Coyotes host the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night, and welcome back former teammate Antoine Vermette in the process.

This still doesn't look right.
This still doesn't look right.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Coyotes continue their six game homestand tonight against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks. While they host Chicago, Arizona also will welcome back former team MVP Antoine Vermette to Gila River Arena for the first time since trading him on February 28th.

Matchup at a Glance

Stat Chicago Blackhawks Arizona Coyotes
Points 84 (3rd Central) 50 (6th Pacific)
Goals 2.74 (16th) 2.06 (29th)
Goals against 2.29 (2nd) 3.27 (28th)
Power play % 17.6 (20th) 21.1 (7th)
Penalty kill 86.0 (2nd) 78.4 (26th)
SAT Differential +454 (2nd) -110 (22nd)
SpSV% 1001 (t-13th) 966 (30th)

The View from Chicago

The Blackhawks enter play Thursday in third place in the Central Division. Chicago's once comfortable playoff spot has become slightly uneasy over the past few weeks as the hardcharging Minnesota Wild are only three points behind. Six points is the difference separating Chicago from their current playoff perch and the 8th seed in the West. Combine the suddenly shaky playoff footing with an injury to Hart trophy candidate Patrick Kane, and Chicago's willingness to spend big on Kimmo Timonen and Vermette is understandable.

Chicago has gone 3-1-1 in the five games since Kane broke his collarbone. But they have been shutout in two of them. They have actually only scored nine goals in those five games, with five of them coming against the not so stout defense of the Carolina Hurricanes. In their last game, the Blackhawks were blanked by the New York Rangers, 1-0. The good news for that game was that Chicago at least nudged the game to overtime, guaranteeing them the one point.

Timonen and Vermette have both played three games since arriving in the Windy City. Neither has added a point so far in their brief Chicago sojourn. Vermette did score the shootout winner for the Hawks against Edmonton last Friday night in the unfamiliar number 80 sweater.

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews has done his part to step up for the Hawks since the Kane injury. He has three goals and two assists in the five games. Starting goalie Corey Crawford has stepped up his play as well. He has one shutout since number 88 went down and is 2-0-1 in March with a 1.29 GAA and a .964 SV%.

The View from Arizona

The Coyotes have arguably played much better hockey since the trade deadline. Sure, the record is still not pretty - 1-2-1 in the four games since trading Vermette, Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek - but three of those games were close from start to finish. Even the 4-1 loss to Anaheim to start this homestand was closer than the final score indicates.

Arizona's biggest problem continues to be an inability to score. In the last 20 games, they have scored three or more goals only four times (this doesn't include shootout winning goals). In that same span, they have scored one or fewer (also known as zero) goals ten times. It's a problem that will continue, but it goes back long enough to know that the players they traded at and before the deadline weren't making that a big a difference at the time anyway.

Mike Smith has been the biggest bright spot for the Coyotes recently. Although his season numbers are still terrible, they have improved since February. Since the first of that month, Smith has played in 15 games and posted a 2.74 GAA and a .917 SV%. In three games since the beginning of March, he has a 1.97 GAA and a .941 SV%. That may be a small sample size, but it's encouraging none the less.

Keys to the Game

  1. Emotions. A huge crowd is expected with Chicago in town and Vermette returning. Many of the spectators will likely be wearing Chicago sweaters and not root, root, rooting for the home team. The Coyotes need to harness the energy that will be in Gila River tonight and play another inspired game like last Thursday.
  2. Strength against strength. The Coyotes have a top ten power play and Chicago has a top ten penalty kill. The Coyotes need to win that battle, but more importantly, need to at least use their power play multiple times. Keep the legs moving and draw whistles.
  3. Rise to the occasion. Since beating Chicago in the 2012 playoffs, the Coyotes are 3-4-1 against the second city hockey team. Those games have either been hard fought, close contests or blowouts with no in between. Hopefully tonight is more the latter than the former.

Players to Watch

Patrick Sharp was the subject of trade rumors around the deadline and while he wasn't moved, the former 30 goal scorer hasn't exactly been lighting it up either. He hasn't scored a goal since January 28th against the Los Angeles Kings and has two assists in 16 games since the start of February. With Kane out, the Balckhawks need more from Sharp and he knows it.

When Arizona traded Vermette and Yandle, they traded their two assistant captains. One of the replacements was obviously going to be Oliver Ekman-Larsson but the second "A" was a little harder. Kyle Chipchura was given the honor and has played with an extra jump in his step since.

He had the only Coyote goal Monday against the Predators and he has 11 shots on goal in the four games since the trades. He has also eclipsed 19 minutes played in the last three contests. Chipchura probably shouldn't be a top six forward in any situation, but he is making use of his opportunity with it now.

Injury Report

Chicago is obviously without Patrick Kane. His broken collarbone has him sidelined for the rest of the regular season, although a playoff return isn't out of the realm of possibility if Chicago advance far enough. The Hawks are also without defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk. He broke his patella earlier this season. He has started skating with the team and could return shortly but isn't likely for tonight. One blueliner who may come back for Chicago is Johnny Oduya. He's missed time with an upper body injury but should be activated from IR for tonight.

The Coyotes won't have Martin Hanzal (back surgery) or Mikkel Boedker (spleen removal) again this season as both are done for the year. Lauri Korpikoski missed the Nashville game and is questionable to suit up tonight.

Puck Drop

The game is scheduled to get underway at 7pm Arizona time (which is now Pacific Time for all you out of area readers). It will be broadcast on Fox Sports Arizona and can be heard on your radio on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.