Blackhawks

Blackhawks adjust quickly to switching sides: 'It’s just a little weird'

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks adjust quickly to switching sides: 'It’s just a little weird'

Patrick Sharp got his position-switching indoctrination when he first joined the Blackhawks.

“Going back to when Savy was coaching, he played me at all three positions nightly,” Sharp said of former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard. “So I got used to bouncing around quite a bit.”

The Blackhawks are like any other team: they’d love to play guys at their most comfortable spots at all times. But sometimes you need to be a little creative. Perhaps cap issues have left you with a lack of depth at a position. Maybe your overall game is off and shaking things up may have an effect. Whatever the reasons players have to be ready to switch to their off side – or their comfortable side – depending on needs. Players adjust accordingly.

“The biggest thing is probably taking pucks on different sides and the breakouts. On the off wing you’re more on the backhand and on the strong side you’re getting more pucks on your forehand, so it’s a little easier coming out,” said Nick Schmaltz, who’s back at his familiar center after playing on the wing last season. “But I think it’s a different look coming into the zone as well; when you’re on your off wing you can cut to the middle and it’ll be on your forehand. But everyone on our team’s pretty high skilled player. It’s a quick adjustment, maybe just take one or two shifts to adjust a little bit.”

Alex DeBrincat has played most of his Blackhawks games at right wing but was moved back to the left side for their victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night. DeBrincat played right wing his first season with the Erie Otters but was mainly a left wing his final two years there. He admits the left feels better.

“It’s easier for me entering the zone if I’m on my left side. That’s the biggest change. But that’ll be easier for me and hopefully I can make some more plays,” said DeBrincat, who scored an empty-net goal on Wednesday. “I mean it doesn’t matter that much. But for me, this side’s going to let me get more shots and let me have a quick release. Those are two things I’ve done in the past and I need to find at this level.”

Jan Rutta is on the other side of that equation. The defenseman has played the right side all but a handful of times, but coach Joel Quenneville put Rutta on the left late in the Blackhawks’ loss to Colorado last weekend.

“It’s just a little weird to be on the left side. The angles are a little bit different,” Rutta said prior to Wednesday’s game. “I wasn’t skating on the left very much but after two practices I felt more comfortable there.”

Different? Sure. But Rutta’s ability to adapt quickly, coupled with Gustav Forsling’s upper-body injury, left Quenneville looking for an option. Quenneville said there were a few adjustments defensemen have to make playing their off sides.

“Sometimes there are some blind spots and you get more familiar coming out of your corner coverage to the net: loose pucks off shots, turning and you have to adapt to seeing the play in front of you,” said Quenneville, who’s been happy with Rutta’s work on the left. “Turning into pucks coming down the ice, you’re familiar going to your left or right. The other way, it’s a different turn. But I think his quickness can help alleviate those type of challenges.”

Players would probably prefer to stay where they’re most comfortable. But if necessary, they’re able to figure it out pretty quickly.

“When you’re playing hockey and making plays, it’s out of your mind,” Sharp said. “Sometimes you gotta remind yourself when you’re lining up for a faceoff, you’re just on autopilot sometimes and go to your natural spot. There are positives and advantages to playing either side. You just have to get the experience doing it.”

Gustav Forsling showing improvement in his second season with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Gustav Forsling showing improvement in his second season with Blackhawks

On two consecutive Saturday evenings the Blackhawks were looking for a little more offense. On two consecutive Saturday evenings they got some from Gustav Forsling, whose shots got through to either tie a game (vs. Carolina) or take a lead (vs. Pittsburgh).

Forsling isn’t the big go-to guy when it comes to points but he’s nevertheless getting them for a Blackhawks team that’s starting to find its offense again. But this is more about Forsling’s overall game which, not long after he made the Blackhawks roster last fall, plateaued. This season he’s been more consistent and more confident from the start, and he and Jan Rutta have formed a pair that coach Joel Quenneville trusts and has kept together for most of this season. The 21-year-old defenseman talked of working on the mental side of his game entering this season and said he feels the difference.

“I’ve been working on it this summer and I feel a little bit better,” he said. “[Just] more confident with the puck and confident in myself and pretty much everywhere.”

Quenneville has seen the difference.

“I think he’s getting better with his reads,” Quenneville said. “He’s got a better gap. [Being] quicker all over the ice is part of that and nice to see him pound one that goes through because his shot can be a lot heavier than it’s been and we want him to use it a little bit more, too.”

Forsling says he feels comfortable playing with any of the Blackhawks’ defensemen but there’s no doubt he and Rutta have been good together. The two clicked immediately, and at times they’ve been the Blackhawks’ second pair.

“I think we’re thinking the same way out there on the ice. We have a great conversation out there and everything’s worked out fine,” Forsling said. “He’s a funny guy and we get along well.”

Forsling’s offensive contributions are welcomed but so is his defense. When the Rangers were looking for the game-tying goal late in the third period on Wednesday, Forsling was on Corey Crawford’s left side to prevent David Desharnais from scoring it. Seventy-six seconds later, Artem Anisimov’s goal gave the Blackhawks a two-goal lead.

“Great play by him,” Crawford said. “For us, we want to cover the short side there and it’s great or him to get over quick and get his stick there. Definitely a great stop by him.”

Forsling’s playing with more confidence. He’s added a little early offense. The Blackhawks wanted Forsling to reach another level this season and so far, he’s doing that.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Penguins: Power play becoming a strength?

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Penguins: Power play becoming a strength?

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night:
 
1. That's how you start a game.

The Blackhawks haven't had the best of starts over the last couple weeks or so — aside from their recent four-goal first period against New Jersey. But they flew out of the gates in Pittsburgh.

Chicago recorded 27 shot attempts (11 on goal) in the opening frame compared to Pittsburgh's 13 attempts (nine on goal), and led in the even-strength scoring chances department 11-2.

Two of those chances were breakaways from Nick Schmaltz and Jonathan Toews, but both were denied by Matt Murray. The Blackhawks cashed in on one of two power play opportunities, however, and took a 1-0 lead into the second.

2. Power play strikes again.

Speaking of power plays, the Blackhawks came up empty on their first one of the game, but they were handed another one 44 seconds later at the midway mark of the first and capitalized when Gustav Forsling slipped one five-hole past Murray. 

It's the third consecutive game the Blackhawks have scored on the man advantage, something they hadn't done since Oct. 7-12 when they scored in four straight. It's also the second consecutive game the power play unit netted the game winner.

The Blackhawks are 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) on the power play in their last three games after going 5-for-53 (9.4 percent) in their previous 12. 

3. Should Blackhawks have pushed back immediately following Corey Crawford injury?

A scary moment occurred in the second period when Evgeni Malkin swiped Crawford in the mask while racing for a loose puck, forcing the Blackhawks netminder to exit before returning a few minutes later.

Malkin was given a two-minute minor penalty for goaltender interference, but should the Blackhawks have stood up for Crawford at the expense of getting tagged with a penalty themselves?

No question a power play opportunity with a chance to make it a two-goal game at that stage of the game — and against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions who hadn't lost in regulation at home this season going into the matchup —  is important, but the Blackhawks' lack of retaliation was a bit surpising. 

It wasn't a dirty play by Malkin by any means, but there's a principle involved when your goaltender gets hit like that. Those are the kinds of penalties you shouldn't mind taking, and at the very worst it would've been 4-on-4 hockey with one of Pittsburgh's best forwards in the box.

4. Artem Anisimov stays hot.

The goals keep coming for No. 15.

After the Penguins tied it up at 1-1 in the third period with a shorthanded goal, Anisimov scored 21 seconds later on the power play to put the Blackhawks back in front 2-1.

Anisimov now has nine goals in his last 10 games after scoring just one goal in his first 10 to start the season. He also has four game-winning goals on the season, all of which have come this month. Brandon Saad leads the NHL with five.

5. Alex DeBrincat extends point streak.

Lost in the shuffle was the Blackhawks' top rookie getting on the scoresheet once again.

With an assist on Forsling's power play goal in the first period, DeBrincat extended his point streak to four games. He has four goals and two assists in that span, and is averaging a point per game over his last nine (six goals and three assists).

DeBrincat also moved into a three-way tie with Richard Panik and Toews for second on the team with 13 points.