Blackhawks

Blackhawks offense sputtering? Break out the line blender

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AP

Blackhawks offense sputtering? Break out the line blender

When the Blackhawks pummeled the Pittsburgh Penguins 10-1 on Oct. 5 a very optimistic, albeit misguided, phrase was bandied about in certain circles.

“This was a statement game!”

Sure, if you’re super positive that’s one way to go but it was presumptuous. That one game was an anomaly. It was one big, beautiful anomaly for the Blackhawks, who were facing a team that was not only likely tired from two consecutive Stanley Cup runs but also tired from a game the previous night. But it was an anomaly nonetheless.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, when the Blackhawks were the latest to fall to the upstart expansion Vegas Golden Knights. It was the latest in a series of games in which the Blackhawks’ offense has sputtered; asked by The Athletic’s Scott Powers if it’s time to consider different lines, coach Joel Quenneville said, “it’s definitely something we can look at.”

If the line blender is utilized at Thursday’s practice it won’t be a surprise. In their first two games the Blackhawks scored 15 goals (7.5 per game); again, that wonky first game skews everything. The Blackhawks’ offense has since come back to earth, recording 19 goals in their last eight games (2.375 per game). The Blackhawks’ best line over the last two games has been the fourth line. Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and John Hayden have each scored in those contests. That’s great for the fourth line but not positive for the other three lines.

The top line has probably been the most consistent but has had its off nights. Many figured (myself included) that once Nick Schmaltz got healthy/back in the lineup that he, Patrick Kane and Ryan Hartman would snap right back into Game 1 form. That really hasn’t happened yet. The third line of Patrick Sharp, Artem Anisimov and Alex DeBrincat hasn’t produced much, either. Anisimov, especially, has been struggling.

Regardless of the line the issues have been the same: too many one-and-done opportunities, not enough zone time and not enough puck possession. The last two used to be such consistent parts of the Blackhawks’ game and they had a lot of success because of them. Getting back to dominating zone time and puck possession can be done, but the Blackhawks need to find the right combinations to do so.

There was nothing wrong with celebrating the Blackhawks’ eye-popping, opening-night victory against the Penguins. Calling it a “statement game” was getting a little ahead of things. There has been more of a statement made in the Blackhawks’ recent trend of games, and it’s a reminder that this season is going to be a work in progress.

Break out the blender.

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.