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NHL Preview: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Viktor Stalberg loves playing against the Blue Jackets. Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t normally write game previews, but tonight’s game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets is special for me. I covered the Blue Jackets when I began writing for Rant Sports last summer, during the whole Rick Nash saga. Now that I cover the Blackhawks, I had to share my observations.

The Blackhawks are taking everyone by surprise so far this season with their 4-0 start, and a big reason is Corey Crawford’s goaltending. He was incredibly shaky last season, his first as a starter, and the nerves that come from being in the spotlight were his downfall. This time around, he’s changed his pregame routine – he now sits quietly by himself instead of playing soccer with his teammates. The change has done him a world of good, because he seems more confident and focused in net.

Another factor for the Blackhawks is their special teams. While their penalty kill and power play units were utter losses last season, they’ve stepped up this season. All three goals in their game against the Dallas Stars on Thursday were on the power play, and their PK units seem stronger than last time. This is because their individual parts have become stronger, with Marian Hossa showing no effects of his concussion and Patrick Kane having one of the strongest starts of his young career. Even Duncan Keith, the hero of the second period Thursday night, is looking to be in Norris Trophy contender form once again.

The Blue Jackets’ new crop of forwards could be their biggest key. They added Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to their roster, although Foligno and Anisimov only have one goal each in four games. But it’s early in the season. Keep in mind that Anisimov had plenty of practice in the KHL, where he led Yaroslavl Lokomotiv with 12 goals and 30 points in 36 games. Dubinsky was the leading scorer for the ECHL’s Alaska Aces in scoring before he injured his hand. If the Blue Jackets want to neutralize Crawford, they’ll likely turn to any of those three for that duty.

Of course, that means nothing when you think about the deadly weapon the Blackhawks have against the Blue Jackets in Viktor Stalberg. He seems to have a Pavlovian response to their games, because he tallied eight goals, two assists and a plus-11 in their six-game series last season. He’ll be looking to extend that scoring streak against them.

One thing that could hurt the Blue Jackets is that they’re using Steve Mason in net for the game. He had a shaky 2011-12 season, but everyone says he’s going to do better this time. All it will take is a few “I should’ve had that one” moments in the game for him to lose any confidence he had and be replaced with Sergei Bobrovsky.

This game could be the first real test the Blue Jackets will have in terms of their ability to reverse their perpetual bad luck. If they beat the Blackhawks, they’ll gain more self-confidence than they’ve had in a while. The Blackhawks could beat them and come one step closer to ensuring an historic season start. This is a crucial game for both teams, and I can’t wait to see how it ends.