Blackhawks

Starving for goals, Blackhawks need to show hunger to break out of losing stretch

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USA TODAY

Starving for goals, Blackhawks need to show hunger to break out of losing stretch

When the Blackhawks began training camp in September, the goal was clear. It didn’t matter how many points they had in the 2016-17 regular season; the abrupt postseason end was ugly, stunning and forgettable. From the start this season, they had to play hungry hockey.

“A big part of what we gotta do here is get to the playoffs, and you’ve got to have a good regular season,” Brent Seabrook said when camp began. “The playoffs last year didn’t sit well with me, and I’m sure it didn’t sit well with a lot of other guys that were here. So we’re going to be ready to roll right off the start, and we want to get in a good position to have the best spot we can for the playoffs.”

In the Blackhawks’ first two regular-season games that hunger was evident. They were relentless, confident and seemingly scoring at will. But the Blackhawks’ course has taken a U-turn since then. Hesitation has replaced aggressiveness. They’re in a goal drought, be it 5-on-5 or the power play. And when doubt creeps into this team’s game, it’s hard to shake.

When the Blackhawks fell 6-3 on Saturday night in Colorado, it was their third consecutive loss and fifth regulation loss in their last eight games. For a team that came out of the gates so strong, the latest batch of games is a concern.

Let’s look at the Blackhawks’ last 10 games. There have definitely been vintage Blackhawks hockey moments. They’ve had 20 minutes here, 40 minutes there, but the complete games have eluded them for a while. On Friday the Blackhawks’ first period was one of their best of the season, right up there with their first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 5. Despite that dominating first period, the Blackhawks led just 1-0 on an Artem Anisimov short-handed goal. But when Duncan Keith’s mistake led to Nashville’s tying goal the Blackhawks seemed to deflate. For those of us who have watched the Blackhawks the last few seasons, shaking off miscues and recovering fast was always a big part of their game. The Blackhawks came on with a better third against the Predators, but there’s no doubt they let that one mistake affect them too long.

“Mistakes are going to happen,” Patrick Kane said on Friday. “When it does happen we have to stay the course, try to keep that momentum we had or regain it, whatever it is.”

Maybe the Blackhawks’ wealth of regular-season success is more of a hindrance than a help. Outwardly they don’t get rattled, especially at this time of year. "It’s a long season. There’s time to work things out." It’s been a long time since they’ve had to scratch and claw their way into the postseason, but if they keep going on their current path, they might have to do that.

The Blackhawks have all the tools to be successful. There’s no shortage of talent, no shortage of ability, no shortage of winning pedigree. What the Blackhawks seem to be lacking right now is hunger, and if they don’t work up the necessary appetite soon, it could be a long season.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night:
 
1. One too many penalties.

The Blackhawks flirted with danger in the first period when they handed the Lightning three straight continuous power plays, a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty from John Hayden and a Jonathan Toews hooking call that resulted in a 5-on-3 opportunity for Tampa Bay for 43 seconds. 

The penalty kill unit that ranked fourth in the league entering the matchup, however, killed off all three of those penalties against the NHL's top-ranked power play, and did so in commanding fashion.

The Blackhawks went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in regulation, but couldn't stop the sixth one — a questionable slashing call on Nick Schmaltz —  in overtime when Brayden Point buried the winner on a 4-on-3 opportunity.

It was also interesting that Jon Cooper elected to go with four forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Point and Steven Stamkos) and zero defensemen during that man advantage, putting all of his offensive weapons out on the ice. It's something more teams should do in that situation.

2. Patrick Kane gets going.

After scoring just one goal in his previous 10 games, Kane found the back of the net twice in the opening frame against Tampa Bay and stayed hot against a team he historically plays well against. And he nearly netted a hat trick in overtime but couldn't cash in on a breakaway opportunity.

Kane has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 14 career regular-season games against the Lightning, and extended his point streak to five games. He has three goals and four assists over that stretch.

We wrote about how important it is for the Blackhawks' superstars to get going again with the offensive contributions mainly coming from role players as of late, and Kane getting into a groove is a perfect step in that direction.

3. How about that goaltending battle?

Corey Crawford and Andrei Vasilevskiy showed us exactly why they belong in the Vezina Trophy discussion, and as of this moment, it's hard not to include both of them as finalists. They put on a goaltending clinic, seemingly topping the other as the game went on.

The two teams combined for 71 scoring chances, and Crawford and Vasilevskiy came up big when their teams need them the most.

Crawford finished with 35 saves on 38 shots (.921 save percentage) in the loss while Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of 31 (.935 save percentage), and improved to 15-2-1 on the season. 

4. Missed opportunities.

You couldn't have asked for a better start for the Blackhawks. They scored the first goal 3:49 into the game and the second on the power play at 15:54, killed off three penalties, including a 5-on-3, had 24 shot attempts (13 on goal) compared to the Lightning's 16 attempts (11 on goal) and led in even-strength scoring chances 9-6.

It was a different story the rest of the way.

The Blackhawks took their foot off the gas pedal a bit and let the Lightning back in the game by getting away from what they do best, and that's control the puck. Obviously, you expected the league's best offense to push back and it's certainly not an easy task to keep them off the scoresheet all together. 

But the Blackhawks had their chances to stay in front or retake the lead and just couldn't bury them. Tampa Bay had 50 shot attempts from the second period on while the Blackhawks had only 32, and finished with 44 scoring chances compared to Chicago's 27.

5. Richard Panik in the doghouse?

Joel Quenneville didn't go to his line blender in this one, but he did shorten some leashes. Panik, most notably, had a season-low 12:28 of ice time in the loss and had 15 shifts, which was second-fewest only to Ryan Hartman (13) on the team.

Panik had a prime chance to break a 2-2 tie in the third period but was denied by Vasilevskiy, who made a remarkable left-pad save. Instead, Panik extended his goal drought to 12 games and didn't get a shift in overtime.

He's certainly better and will get his scoring chances when playing on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad, but the missed opportunities are magnified in tight losses. It doesn't look like a move down in the lineup is coming given the success of Alex DeBrincat, who gives the Blackhawks an offensive weapon on the third line, but perhaps it should be considered.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?