Blackhawks

Back from illness, Jonathan Toews re-joins top line vs. Blue Jackets

Back from illness, Jonathan Toews re-joins top line vs. Blue Jackets

Jonathan Toews approached Saturday night’s game, the one in which he’d be centering Brandon Saad and Richard Panik against the Columbus Blue Jackets, with playful trepidation.

“Well, it was nice to see what they can do without me,” said Toews, referring to Thursday’s game that he missed due to illness. “Maybe I’ll take a few more nights off and let Saader and Panner do their thing.”

Saad and Panik both had nice evenings, especially Saad who recorded a preseason hat trick. Still, this is the Blackhawks’ top line moving forward so it gives them a chance to see how things have been developing in camp to this point.

“It’s been fun playing with those two so far,” Toews said. “We’re starting to work on that confidence, starting to get better and better as we get closer toward the season. For myself, hopefully I can just step in and help them build off their night and continue the offense.”

Jean-François Bérubé is expected to play Saturday night’s entire game.

The Blackhawks reacquired Saad in June in the hopes that he would bring the same game that made him a top-line forward here several years ago. On Thursday he showed he hasn’t lost a whole lot. Now the Blackhawks will start to see if that top line can mesh and meet expectations.

“He’s stepping in here knowing he’ll be one of those guys heavily keyed upon for us, and he’s ready for that and excited for it,” Toews said of Saad. “It’s nice to see him really taking shape, getting confidence early with the hat trick. Hopefully I don’t hold him back to much tonight and we can keep it going.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to extend winning streak against Wild

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to extend winning streak against Wild

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Minnesota Wild tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Foot on gas.

The Blackhawks have won four straight and are looking to make it five in a row against a Wild team that's fighting to stay in the playoff picture also.

The Wild are already without Devan Dubnyk, who's considered week to week with a lower-body injury, and they rank dead last in shots per game (28.5). That's not a favorable combo right now, because the Blackhawks rank sixth with 34.5 shots per game.

Joel Quenneville always preaches playing with pace and with the puck, and there shouldn't be a reason the Blackhawks don't continue that tonight with the Wild coming off a back-to-back.

2. Can the second line stay hot?

In the last three games, the trio of Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane has combined for 10 points (five goals, five assists), and they've teamed up to score the game winner in two of the last three. 

Kane himself has a three-game point streak after going pointless in his previous four, which was the longest drought since 2009. That line has been clicking, and it's important for it to stay that way as the Blackhawks look to evolve into a strong four-line team.

3. How will the blue line stack up?

The Blackhawks were hopeful that Cody Franson (lower body) and Jan Rutta (upper body) would skate at practice on Saturday, but neither of them did. So unless something drastic changes overnight, it appears the Blackhawks will roll out the same six defensemen with Ville Pokka being the lone healthy scratch.

Jordan Oesterle has played so well since returning to the lineup that Quenneville put him on the second power-play unit during Saturday's practice, and Michal Kempny made an impact in his first game since Nov. 12 when he scored a goal in Thursday's 5-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

If both of them play turn in another solid performance, it will be interesting to see how Quenneville plays his cards once one or both of either Franson or Rutta are ready to return soon.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night:

1. A perfect start.

Against a high-powered Jets offense that leads the league in first-period goals (40) and ranked fourth in goals per game (3.41) entering Thursday, the Blackhawks made sure to throw the kitchen sink at Winnipeg in the opening frame.

The Blackhawks scored two goals on their first two shots thanks to Vinnie Hinostroza netting his first of the season and Tommy Wingels scoring his third in four games, and Nick Schmaltz later made it three goals on five shots when he redirected Duncan Keith's shot from the point.

The Blackhawks as a team recorded 24 shot attempts (12 on goal) and generated nine 5-on-5 scoring chances compared to 12 attempts (six on goal) and two scoring chances for the Jets. 

2. Bottom six delivers.

Not only did the Blackhawks score five goals, but they got contributions from all over the lineup, particularly the bottom six yet again. Hinostroza and Wingels set the tone early, and their offense trickled down to the top six. 

On the first goal, Patrick Sharp made a nice play to keep the puck in the offensize zone, capitalizing on a Tyler Myers turnover and sliding a perfect pass to Hinostroza for the one-timer. 

On the second, Lance Bouma's first pass attempt to Wingels from behind the net was blocked by a Jets forward but his second one got through and Wingels made no mistake in snapping it past Connor Hellebuyck.

It's the fourth time in the last five games the Blackhawks have gotten a goal from their fourth line, and the first goal from the third line since Alex DeBrincat was moved up to the first with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.

3. That pass by Schmaltz...

Already on the scoresheet with a goal in the first period, Schmaltz decided to add to his highlight reel in the way he knows how to do it best.

A little past the midway mark of the second period, Schmaltz jumped on a rebound and fired an unbelievable no-look pass right on Kane's tape, who buried home his second goal in as many games to give the Blackhawks a 4-0 lead.

Kane's reaction said it all:

4. Corey Crawford stays sharp.

In their biggest test to date, the Blackhawks needed their netminder to be on his A-game and he was, not surprisingly, up to the task.

With a 27-save performance, Crawford improved to 8-0-2 in his last 10 starts and hasn't lost a regulation game since Nov. 12 against New Jersey. He's allowed two goals or fewer in each of his last four games, and has a .952 save percentage over that span. He also has given up just one goal or fewer in 10 of 24 starts this season.

Crawford's overall save percentage jumped to .934, moving him into a tie with Andrei Vasilevskiy for the league lead among starters.

5. Blackhawks blue liners making things difficult for Joel Quenneville.

When Cody Franson went down with a lower-body injury, it was Jordan Oesterle who got the call to slide into the top pairing with Duncan Keith and he hasn't missed a beat despite being a healthy scratch in 11 straight.

With Jan Rutta (upper body) out, Michal Kempny got back in the lineup for the first time in 14 games and he made sure to make his presence felt.

He logged 16:30 of ice time, registered five shot attempts (three on goal), a blocked shot and scored the Blackhawks' fifth goal of the game with an absolute missile of a slap shot from the left circle that whizzed above Hellebuyck's right shoulder.

It was an important goal, too, because the Jets had just cut the lead to 4-1 and were making a strong push towards the early stages of the third period.

It's a great problem to have when you have eight capable defensemen, but it calls for some difficult decisions when Franson and Rutta get healthy. Oesterle has done nothing to warrant being removed from the lineup, and neither did Kempny in this one.