Blackhawks

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks return home against Western-leading Vegas

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks return home against Western-leading Vegas

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks host the Vegas Golden Knights Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with an hour-long edition of Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. The start of a stretch of home games.

After enduring a six-game road trip that finished with a 2-3-1 record, the Blackhawks return to the United Center. Friday's game against Vegas is a tough test, but it's also the start of a run of eight of nine games that will be played at the UC.

The Blackhawks host the Oilers on Sunday after this game and have six straight at home after traveling to Ottawa. The Hawks have a good, but not great home record at 10-5-2. If the Blackhawks are as good as they hope to be, they will take advantage of this run of games with a pile of points on the other end. If not, then it appears the struggle to get into a playoff spot may last all season.

2. Vegas is for real.

We're past the point of asking if Vegas is for real. The Golden Knights lead the Western Conference and the regular season is nearly halfway finished. The question is no longer can Vegas make the playoffs, but how high can the Golden Knights finish and what can they do once the postseason arrives?

The good news for the Blackhawks is that Vegas has had a much better record at home than away (the Hawks were a victim to this in a 4-2 loss on Oct. 24). The Golden Knights will host the Blackhawks again in February, but this one is at the UC and should give the Hawks a good chance. Vegas is 17-2-1 at home (best in the NHL) and 10-8-1 on the road (still solid, but not quite among the league's best).

3. Blackhawks still calling Glass.

Since Corey Crawford went down with injury, the Blackhawks' goaltending situation has been in flux. Anton Forsberg, who was the No. 2 behind Crawford, struggled in his chance to become the starter for the time being. Jeff Glass, the 32-year-old rookie, has filled in admirably and the Blackhawks have a 2-0-1 record in his three starts.

Will Glass remain the starter while Crawford is out? Will he take Forsberg's roster spot once Crawford returns? These are questions without immediate answers, but in the short-term the Blackhawks will constantly be evaluating both goalies to see who deserves ice time and a roster spot.

Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

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Why Vinnie Hinostroza has been a hidden gem for Blackhawks

When looking back on the 2017-18 season, it's easy to single out Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz as the two most notable silver linings for the Blackhawks, both of whom showed real promise as important pieces going forward.

But lost in the shuffle — or quietly flying under the radar — has been Vinnie Hinostroza, in part because he started the year in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs when he probably didn't deserve to.

"Obviously I wanted to start off the year here, but going down there, I knew that if I played well I'd be back up here and that's what they told me leaving camp," Hinostroza said. "I got to go down there, play a lot of minutes, play in every situation. I learned a lot and I think it helped my game."

It was perhaps more-so a numbers game, and Hinostroza was a guy the Blackhawks could send to Rockford without having to go through the waiver process. It also wasn't the worst thing for his long-term development.

Not surprisingly, Hinostroza flourished with the IceHogs by averaging nearly a point-per-game with nine goals and 13 assists in 23 games. He was more than ready to be promoted.

It just took a while because the Blackhawks were carrying the maximum amount of skaters (23) and there weren't any injuries to open up a spot.

Eventually, the Blackhawks decided they couldn't ignore his offensive production any longer and placed Tanner Kero on waivers — which he cleared — to make room for Hinostroza, who was recalled on Dec. 8.

And when he finally got his chance with the big club, Hinostroza took advantage.

He set career-highs in all three scoring categories with seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in 50 games despite having only two points in the final 15 contests.

The underlying numbers supported his value, too.

When Hinostroza was on the ice at even strength, the Blackhawks controlled 54.57 percent of the shot attempts and had a high-danger Goals For percentage of 58.33, according to naturalstattrick.com.

He also had a points-per-60 minutes rate of 1.98 during 5-on-5 play; only Patrick Kane had a higher one (2.16) on the Blackhawks.

Hinostroza did all this while bouncing around from the first line to the fourth line, meaning it gave Joel Quenneville the luxury to put him anywhere and expect his offensive production to stay the same. His versatility in that sense, along with being able to play any of the three forward positions, makes him a valuable piece of this club.

The Blackhawks know that, and envision him as part of the long-term picture. Not bad for the Bartlett native who was taken in the sixth round (169th overall) in 2012 by his hometown team.

"I want to make it clear our No. 1 priority as we move forward is to make sure we can keep these young players — DeBrincat and Schmaltz and Hinostroza and some other young players that are going to maybe join our team over the next year or two," GM Stan Bowman said. "That's the direction that we're headed, and we want those guys to be Blackhawks and to take a bigger role."

Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

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USA TODAY

Patrick Sharp to serve as guest NHL analyst for NBC Sports' Stanley Cup Playoff coverage

Despite announcing his retirement from the NHL this season, Patrick Sharp insisted he's not going anywhere.

And he won't be.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Blackhawks will be serving as a guest analyst on NHL Live tonight and Wednesday during NBC Sports' first-round Stanley Cup Playoff coverage, appearing on the pregame show at 5:30 p.m., breaking down the intermissions of Blue Jackets vs. Capitals and Jets vs. Wild.

Sharp will join Liam McHugh, Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick for Columbus-Washington and Kathryn Tappen, Anson Carter and Roenick for Winnipeg-Minnesota.

Perhaps we're seeing a little glimpse of what Sharp's future post-playing career could hold?