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NY Islanders vs. Chicago Blackhawks Preview: Measuring Sticks against the Stanley Cup Champs

Cal Clutterbuck returns, just in time to re-annoy Western Conference teams.

"Hey Grabs, can I borrow $5,000?"
"Hey Grabs, can I borrow $5,000?"
Jonathan Daniel

Cal Clutterbuck is not a very liked hockey player, particularly among Western Conference teams and their fans, so it's only fitting is laceration-delayed debut as an Islander comes against an old Western foe.

The New York Islanders face the Chicago Blackhawks tonight in what the Isles view as a measuring stick of sorts against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but a side story is how an already good forward lineup will look with Cal Clutterbuck inserted into it, and some poor soul removed from it.

Nyi-islestickslim_medium Chi-slim_medium
Islanders (2-0-1) @ Blackhawks (1-1-1)
[airline merger or something] Center
8 p.m. EDT | MSG+, NHLN (U.S.) | Audio: WRHU/WRCN
Dem guys ovah dere: Second City Hockey

Clutterbuck's last NHL action -- and his last NHL goal* -- came in last spring's playoffs against these same Blackhawks, who steamrolled Minnesota on their way to the Cup. He's more than just an irritant who likes to hit as much as new teammate and NHL hits leader** rival Matt Martin; Clutterbuck can also get around the ice well and kill penalties, a role he filled for Minnesota and should probably execute better than Martin.

**Also getting his last NHL goal against the Hawks? Nino Niederreiter, heh, who scored 55 games ago in Chicago and was dealt this summer for Clutterbuck
*You know, for whatever that stat means

So the Isles should use Clutterbuck on the second or third PK rotation, soon if not immediately. By rights tonight, he'll slip into Peter Regin's third line instead of either rookie Brock Nelson or fellow ex-Wild Pierre-Marc Bouchard. (The beat writers are betting on Nelson after this morning's skate. The other variable is proud new papa Matt Moulson, who took a separate flight to Chicago today and is what Jack Capuano called a game time decision.)

In one more wrinkle, tonight will be a battle of backups rather than a battle of Russian nationals. The 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin will get his first start in net since returning to the Hawks, while Kevin Poulin gets his first start of the year for the Isles.

Poulin's career overall NHL save percentage is .912 in just 21 NHL games across three seasons and an injury. Khabibulin's is .902 over the last three seasons and a DWI, though last year it was .923 in just 13 games with the Oilers. Take your pick on who will "steal" something tonight, if there is any stealing to be done.

Chicago: The Same, But Different

The city? Oh no, it's the same: Very windy and wishing it were seen like New York.

But the Hawks? Well yes, they're the same defending champs. However, they also had to do some roster and cap shuffling in the summer -- this time, not due to gluttony nor poor mail-handling, but due to the normal course of business in a cap world. Gone are Dave Bolland, Viktor Stallberg, Michael Frolik, backup Ray Emery and -- in by far the biggest blow to the lineup -- Jamal Mayers, who they just couldn't keep from falling prey to the NHL Network's seductive siren song after his inspiring playoff performance last spring.

Some of the luxurious depth pieces are gone. The core of stars are still there. (As well as, curiously, a well-past-peak Michal Handzus.) This is how the cap world is designed to work, and you just hope your core is the right one. With Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and two Cups, the Hawks core is just about right.

So what's to complain about? Moves like keeping Handzus instead of one of the others is the kind of small gamble that can hurt, and they continue to insist that Handzus is a second-line center like it's 2004. The Hawks fanzine The Committed Indian cites an early issue with the Chicago penalty kill with Marcus Kruger losing faceoffs and Handzus out there rather than the departed Frolik.

And those bottom-six departures can have a trickle-down effect, as the Hawks are now counting on players like Brandon Bollig and Jimmy Hayes in those roles. They are also giving Bryan Bickell a first-line wing role. Just as Islanders fans should remember how much they've moaned about the Isles overusing unspectacular players in recent seasons, they should remember how important it is to have decent bottom six players to help in the long run. Basically: Cup champions have to pinch pennies and try different things too.

Rivalry hangover? The Hawks are also coming off an intense battle with their primary division rival the St. Louis Blues. (Much like Rangers fans after Isles games, Hawks fans like to pretend those games don't mean anything. They truth lies in how they doth protest too much.)

Anyway, there is no reason to expect the Hawks are no longer one of the top forces in a top-heavy Western Conference. They have strong rivals who will help sort out who's best come April, but for now they are, indeed, a good test for an Islanders team that aspires to move up a few floors in the NHL.

So it should be a fun matchup. If the goalies don't screw it up.

Broadcast Note

For U.S. non-local viewers, this game is on NHL Network. Which means if they carry the Chicago feed, you will have the unfortunate experience of Eddie Olczyk yelling at you that he wants EVERYONE TO WATCH THIS RIGHT HERE. THIS, RIGHT HERE. WHAT I AM DRAWING ON THE SCREEN. WATCH IT. YES, THE REPLAY WHICH THE PRODUCERS ARE SHOWING ON THE SCREEN -- A SCREEN YOU HAVE TUNED TO UNDER YOUR OWN FREE WILL -- I AM TELLING YOU TO WATCH IT. RIGHT HERE.

FIG Picks

Leave your First Islanders Goal picks in this thread.

Expected Hawks lines [UPDATE: Apparently the Hawks will shuffle their lines a bit tonight, so the following are just what they are changing from...]:

29 Bryan Bickell - 19 Jonathan Toews - 88 Patrick Kane
81 Marian Hossa - 26 Michal Handzus - 10 Patrick Sharp
20 Brandon Saad - 65 Andrew Shaw - 22 Jimmy Hayes
52 Brandon Bollig - 16 Marcus Kruger - 42 Joakim Nordstrom

2 Duncan Keith - 7 Brent Seabrook
8 Nick Leddy - 17 Sheldon Brookbank
4 Niklas Hjalmarsson - 27 Johnny Oduya

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