Blackhawks

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?

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Corey Crawford vs. Connor Hellebuyck.

When ranking the importance of goaltenders to their respective teams, these two should be near the top of the list. And they're having Vezina Trophy-type seasons.

Crawford ranks second in the league among starters with a .933 save percentage this season and is 7-0-2 with a 2.18 goals against average and .933 save percentage in his last nine starts.

Hellebuyck on the other hand has arguably been the MVP for the Jets, compiling a 16-3-4 record with a 2.44 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a shutout in 25 appearances. Backup goaltenders Steve Mason and Eric Comrie have combined for a 2-5-1 record with a .897 save percentage in nine appearances. 

They are clearly better when Hellebuyck is in goal, and it's not close. Expect a fun showdown in net.

2. Pick your poison.

There may not be a deeper forward group in the Western Conference than the Jets. They have a dangerous four-line rotation, with the ability to score from top to bottom.

Blake Wheeler has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games this month, and is among the top 10 in scoring with 38 points. Patrik Laine has scored a goal in four of his last six games, while Nikolaj Ehlers has scored in three straight.

And then we get to the bottom six.

The third line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev are the fifth-best trio in the entire league (minimum of 100 minutes) when it comes to possession numbers, controlling 61.38 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, while the fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia is coming off a game in which they combined for five points (two goals, three assists).

This might be the biggest test yet for the Blackhawks.

3. Be ready by puck drop.

No team has scored more goals in the first period than the Jets, who have 40. The next highest team is the Toronto Maple Leafs with 37. 

But the Blackhawks aren't too shabby in the opening frame, either. They rank fifth with 32 goals, although seven of them came in the first two games of the season.

Still, there's no room for a slow start on either side. Two points are on the line for a Jets team aiming for the No. 1 seed and a Blackhawks squad trying to get back into the playoff picture.

Blackhawks recall Ville Pokka, place Cody Franson on injured reserve

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks recall Ville Pokka, place Cody Franson on injured reserve

The Blackhawks have been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season as far as man games lost, but they took a mini blow to their blue line. 

Cody Franson was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Dec. 9 and Ville Pokka was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, the team announced Wednesday.

Franson sustained a lower-body injury last Friday in a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres, and was considered day to day. But after practicing Monday, Franson didn't feel healthy enough to participate in morning skate ahead of Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers and was ruled out.

Franson is eligible to return Sunday when the Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild.

In a corresponding roster move, the Blackhawks brought up Pokka, who has yet to make his NHL debut. There's a chance he could play Thursday in Winnipeg, but it's more likely the call-up is to provide insurance — although, the Blackhawks announced later in the afternoon that Jan Rutta (upper body) will not travel to Winnipeg, so perhaps Joel Quenneville could roll with seven defensemen against a high-powered Jets offense.

Pokka, 23, ranks second among IceHogs defensemen with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 26 games this season.

He was drafted in the second round (No. 34 overall) by the New York Islanders, and was acquired by Chicago in 2014 as part of the package that sent Nick Leddy the other way.