Blackhawks

Blackhawks offense sputters yet again vs. Canadiens

Blackhawks offense sputters yet again vs. Canadiens

The broken record played again on Sunday night. Corey Crawford shutting out an opponent, at least for a while, on one end. The Blackhawks not finding any offense at the other. Sure, there’s been a power-play goal here or an empty-net goal there, but nothing consistent and little on 5-on-5.

Right now for the Blackhawks, it’s either Crawford shutout or bust.

Another game another listless offensive outing for the Blackhawks. They could talk about their opportunities against Charlie Lindgren, the good chances the young Montreal goaltender stopped (38 saves in all), the rebounds he gave up that the Blackhawks couldn’t get to and the near misses the Blackhawks had. It’s easy to say something should happen when you get 38 shots on goal but it again comes down to quality. There was some, but there could’ve been more.

“When you see the shot totals high with no goals, maybe some are coming from the outside, not enough second efforts in front of the goaltenders, taking his eyes away and getting those loose pucks around the net,” Patrick Sharp said. “We have to find a way to generate more offense and help our goaltender out.”

It goes beyond Sunday. The Blackhawks have one 5-on-5 goal in their last three games (Jonathan Toews’ breakaway midway through their victory over Philadelphia on Wednesday). The Blackhawks have tried different line combinations, and they did a little more mixing in the third period on Sunday night, but it hasn’t yielded much. The Blackhawks rarely used to worry about 5-on-5 scoring. Now, as coach Joel Quenneville said following Sunday’s game, they’re “starting to think about it.”

“I don’t know if we need a bounce to get some confidence or get more traffic at the net when our D are shooting the puck. We’re making it too easy on the goaltenders,” Nick Schmaltz said. “[Lindgren] made some great saves, don’t get me wrong. We had some backdoor [chances] we could bear down on a little more on. But it’s just getting to the net and creating more second-chance opportunities and sustaining pucks in the offensive zone.”

Patrick Kane said it’s “definitely frustrating right now.”

“It seems like we either have the chances or we're not really producing much. It's not really fun when it’s going that way,” he said. “That just comes with being more confident around the net. Being a little bit more patient if the puck comes on your stick. Take that extra second and put it where it needs to be.”

The necessary goaltending on one end, the inexplicable inability to score at the other. It’s been a broken record for the Blackhawks this early season, and it keeps spinning.

“We just have to bear down,” Schmaltz said. “Hopefully one game we break out and we won’t be talking about this anymore.”

Reasons to be optimistic about a Blackhawks turnaround

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USA TODAY

Reasons to be optimistic about a Blackhawks turnaround

It's mid-November, and the Blackhawks are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. It's unfamiliar territory for Chicago, which is accustomed to seeing its team as a perrenial Western Conference favorite and Stanley Cup contender.

Since starting the season 3-0-1, the Blackhawks are 6-8-1 in their last 15 games and haven't won more than two in a row yet. It's a little concerning.

But there are reasons to be optimistic about a potential turnaround.

Let's start with the obvious concern: The offense.

If you take away the first two games in which they combined for 15 goals, the Blackhawks would rank 27th in the league in goals per game (2.59). They also went through a stretch where they scored only two goals or fewer in nine of 12 games.

Since then, the Blackhawks have erupted for 15 goals in three games and they're continuing to generate shots at a high rate.

In their last nine contests, the Blackhawks are averaging 38.9 shots per game and rank fifth overall at 34.6. The problem on offense has never been the quantity of shots, it's the quality. They're slowly starting to get both.

And the weird part is? Patrick Kane has four goals in his past 17 games, Duncan Keith has zero goals in 19 games this season, Brandon Saad has one goal in his last 13 and Jonathan Toews has two goals in his last 14, one of which was an empty netter. Those are Chicago's top four horses who are struggling collectively to get on the scoresheet.

Their individual track records suggest they won't stay dry forever.

The Blackhawks' recent offensive hot streak is being spearheaded by role players such as Artem Anisimov (eight goals in his last nine games) and Alex DeBrincat (six goals in seven games this month), the latter of whom has emerged as a darkhorse candidate for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. While it would be unfair to expect him to continue scoring at a goal-per-game pace, DeBrincat's emergence shows he's starting to get comfortable in the NHL and we're seeing exactly what he can bring to the table.

The biggest reason the Blackhawks are staying afloat while the offense figures itself out is the elite goaltending they're getting from Corey Crawford.

Chicago is giving up 33.8 shots per game, which is fourth-most, yet Crawford is making an early case for the Vezina Trophy, sitting at fifth with a 2.26 goals against average and tied for second with a .930 save percentage, including two shutouts.

If there are any doubts about Crawford coming back down to earth, he had a 92.99 save percentage at even-strength last year and 93.32 in 2015-16. Through 16 appearances this season, he's actually a bit below that at 92.47, according to naturalstattrick.com.

Now, in the previous two seasons, the Blackhawks averaged 31.4 and 30.8 shots against, respectively, but the point remains the same that you can consistently count on Crawford playing at a high level.

Did we mention the Blackhawks have the sixth-best penalty kill percentage (82.9) dating back to Oct. 29, 2016? That's a great combination, especially when you have one of the league's best goaltenders to bail you out at times.

Ultimately, the Blackhawks' success hinges on their star players playing like it. Once they get going, the rest will follow. The question is, when will that happen?

Second line back? Anisimov, Kane, Schmaltz looking to build on wonderful Wednesday night

Second line back? Anisimov, Kane, Schmaltz looking to build on wonderful Wednesday night

Artem Anisimov was creating at the net, much like he did on a regular basis the last two seasons. Nick Schmaltz looked as comfortable on the wing as he did at center, and Patrick Kane was getting better shots on net. On Wednesday night the second line of this season looked like the line of the past. Now to build off it.

The way things have been going for the Blackhawks so far this season, you take any one game for what it’s worth. For the Blackhawks’ second line, Wednesday’s outing was a good one, as it was a big part of the team’s comeback victory over the New York Rangers. And the quicker that line finds consistency, perhaps it spreads throughout the lineup.

“Some good things,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Schmaltzy on the wing gives us some speed off the attack, and it’s not just Kaner coming up with the puck. Arty’s got some familiarity with Kaner, and he goes to the net and all of a sudden scores three goals by being right at the net. So I think with Schmaltzy and Kaner and their patience and ability to travel, they bring something different to the table. It was an effective night.”

Schmaltz has said before that he feels best at center, but the move back over to wing hasn’t slowed him down a bit. That helps Quenneville keep Schmaltz and Kane together and brings Anisimov, who thrived in his time with Kane in the past, back into the second-line fold.

“Yeah, just play the game,” Anisimov said. “It doesn’t matter where you play; just go out there and play as hard as you can and have fun.”

Well, sometimes it might matter where you play. Anisimov has shown he just works better with Kane, who holds onto the puck more and allows Anisimov to focus on getting to the net. So if they can all recapture the magic, so be it.

The Blackhawks’ offense has come back to life in their last three games. On Wednesday the second line had a big hand in that offense. Now to find consistency.

“It felt pretty good,” Schmaltz said. “The Rangers did a pretty good job of limiting time and space, so I thought we did a god job of managing the puck, getting it into their zone and forechecking and creating some turnovers that way. We got a few big goals there and got some contributions with a few guys last night.”