For the next part of our series previewing the upcoming Winter Classic between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, let’s take a look at some of the Blackhawks players to watch for during Tuesday’s game, with a focus on some of the less-heralded names occupying the Chicago roster.
This post was written by Dave Melton of Second City Hockey.
The Carl Dahlstrom/Connor Murphy defensive pairing
For the last decade, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been the household names on the Chicago blue line. Both players are slowly falling victims to the undefeated powerhouse known as Father Time, with each player missing a step from their game that existed in their 20s but has slipped away as they’ve moved well into their 30s. Niklas Hjalmarsson was another familiar name among the D corps, but he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2017, which brought Murphy to the Blackhawks.
Murphy, a former first-round pick of the Coyotes in 2011, was probably Chicago’s best defenseman last season, although that probably says more about the subpar performance of that entire group than it does about Murphy. Still, he proved to be one of the few capable defensemen among a group of players that was much-maligned — and rightfully so — during last season.
Dahlstrom, meanwhile, was picked by the Hawks in the second round in 2013. He’d only appeared in 11 NHL games prior to this season and was a surprise call-up earlier in December. But since Dahlstrom arrived in Chicago and was paired with Murphy, this duo has been the best D pairing for the Blackhawks by some measure.
In the nine games they’ve played together, Natural Stat Trick’s data has them at 122:45 minutes of even-strength ice time. And over that time, Chicago has a 6-4 advantage in goals scored. This comes in spite of Dahlstrom and Murphy starting in the offensive zone just 28.21 percent of the time.
It came as a surprise, but the Dahlstrom/Murphy pairing has become the closest thing to a shutdown combo that the Blackhawks have.
Also, 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju has been playing very well this season and would’ve been mentioned here, except he’s playing on loan to Team Finland in the World Juniors and will not appear in the Winter Classic.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft was traded to the Blackhawks in late November has been thriving since the change of scenery. Strome had played in 48 games with the Coyotes across three NHL seasons, netting just 16 points. But during 17 games with Chicago, Strome is already up to 13 points, with six goals and seven assists. Strome’s settled into the No. 2 center role that the Blackhawks have never really had over the last decade.
That means Strome has Patrick Kane on his right wing, which is going to help any player’s offensive numbers. But few No. 2 centers that have played in Chicago have clicked as quickly and as proficiently with Kane as Strome has in the past month, and it’s large reason why the Blackhawks have started rolling after a dreadful 3-19 stretch earlier this season.
Both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times published articles this week suggesting that Delia should be the starter in net during Tuesday’s Winter Classic, with No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford still sidelined by a concussion. It’s been a rapid ascension through the organization for Delia, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and started the prior hockey season in the ECHL. But a plethora of goaltender injuries gave Delia an opportunity in the AHL and he responded by leading the Rockford IceHogs to the conference finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs, posting a 2.72 goals-against average and .900 save percentage with a 17-7-4 record. He was even tougher in the postseason, starting 10 games with a 7-3 record, 2.34 GAA and .924 SA%.
Delia wasn’t expected to see much NHL time this season, with Crawford returning from last season’s concussion issues and the signing of Cam Ward in free agency. But Crawford is back on injured reserve with another concussion and Ward hasn’t been consistent, leaving an opportunity for Delia to get some ice time, and he’s flourished. In three starts over the last 11 days, Delia is 3-0 with a 1.66 GAA and .957 SA%. A starter likely won’t be announced until Monday, but Delia’s impressive play of late means he could get the nod.
And even if he doesn’t start, Ward’s inconsistent play could result in Delia being called upon in relief.