Blackhawks

Blackhawks: Duncan Keith is back to familiar form

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Blackhawks: Duncan Keith is back to familiar form

The minutes are there as usual. So is the dependability during those minutes, regardless of how high they get. The point totals haven’t been bad, either.

In short, Duncan Keith is pretty much back to the player he was before he had right knee surgery in October. Not that he’s resting on what he’s done since returning.

“Well, I’m never really satisfied in what I’ve done,” Keith said. “But in my game, I’m doing everything I can to complement the team and that’s playing good defensively and breaking up plays and getting the puck into forwards hands as quickly as I can.”

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Keith has been in typical form in the 26 games he’s played since having surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus. His minutes are once again anywhere from 24-29 a game and he’s recorded seven goals and 15 assists. Keith was on a four-game point streak (two goals, four assists) before he was held off the score sheet in the Blackhawks’ 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I think he’s played a lot better here as we’ve progressed, coming out of Christmas and going on from there,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He seems to be involved with our attack offensively, off the point, he scored a big goal for us the other night at home (Sunday vs. Ottawa). It’s not just the offense but important minutes in all situations. He’s one of those defensemen who makes a big impact on our team and you can see more predictability in our team game since he’s been back.”

We don’t have to tell you how Keith is such a big part in everything the Blackhawks do. The Blackhawks did OK in Keith’s absence – 5-4-1 – but it was an obvious boon getting him back. Keith’s happy with how his game’s been since his return but would like to keep going off his current levels.

“I’ve felt a lot better since I came back from the surgery as opposed to the first six games, when I wasn’t feeling that good,” Keith said. “I just keep trying to trend upward the second half until the playoffs hit. You want to be going full steam once the playoffs come.”

Keith had a few different defensive partners this season; the Blackhawks tinkered quite a bit there, thanks to both offseason and in-season personnel changes. But his most recent pairing with Niklas Hjalmarsson has worked well. The two complement each other with their differences – Hjalmarsson the stay-at-home guy, much like Keith’s former longtime defensive partner Brent Seabrook. Keith said Hjalmarsson’s play makes him feel more secure.

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“Hammer’s a very steady, smart defensive defenseman. I know he thinks very defensively and for me, I like that. I know he’ll have my back if I’m up there,” Keith said. “I don’t want to get caught but if it does happen and I make a mistake, I know he’ll back me up; and Corey [Crawford], too. It works out pretty good.”

Keith will not be going to this season’s All-Star Game in Nashville. Maybe that month he was sidelined was costly but with a new format and voting process changes, he may not have made it regardless. Keith sounded a little disappointed about not making it. At the same time, the defenseman coming up on 800 career regular-season games – No. 800 would be Sunday vs. the Colorado Avalanche – recognizes the opportunity to rest. After all, the Blackhawks usually need him and his minutes that much more during the postseason.

“As a competitive player, you always want to be recognized for those type of things but for some reason it doesn’t seem to go like that unless I get voted in. I think there are a lot of different situations, scenarios. There are a lot of different players you can make an argument for,” Keith said. “But at the end of the day I’m excited to be using that time to my advantage and getting some rest. Maybe trying to find somewhere warm where you get some sunshine, and use that to heal up a little bit.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to Blue Jackets: Looking at the bigger picture

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday night:

1. Blackhawks squander two leads.

For the 13th time in their past 16 games, the Blackhawks scored the first goal of the game. They had won their previous three instances when doing so, but couldn't seal the deal this time and fell to 5-6-2 in those 13 games.

What strung even more is that the Blackhawks held two one-goal leads and couldn't hang on to either of them. They have the seventh-worst win percentage (.571) when scoring the first goal this season with a 20-10-5 record.

2. Vinnie Hinostroza continues to produce offensively.

If you're trying to look for a rare bright spot on the Blackhawks roster this season, here's one. Hinostroza registered a secondary assist on David Kampf's goal for his fifth point in six games, and was on the ice for 16 shot attempts for and seven against during 5-on-5 play for a team-leading shot attempt differential of plus-9 (also known as Corsi).

For the season, Hinostroza has 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and he's doing so while averaging only 13:27 of ice time. His point-per-game average is up to 0.63, which is tied with Jonathan Toews for third on the team; only Patrick Kane (0.92) and Nick Schmaltz (0.71) are producing at a higher rate.

Hinostroza deserves more minutes, but at the same time his ability to produce on any of the four lines has allowed Joel Quenneville to put him in a bottom six role for balance.

"I like his speed," Quenneville said recently on why Hinostroza has been so effective. "I think with the puck, he's been good with it as well. More strength, on it, managing it, better decisions with it, and good plays off it. He definitely brings you energy and some speed, he can catch people with that quickness."

3. Ryan Hartman's benching.

Hartman was part of the fourth line that contributed to the Blackhawks' first goal of the game, and he was on his way to having a strong one. But that changed quickly after he took an ill-advised penalty in the first period.

Already leading 1-0, the Blackhawks had a 2-on-1 opportunity developing involving Hinostroza and David Kampf but Hartman was whistled for high-sticking at 17:06 behind the play. The Blue Jackets converted on the power play, and that was the end of Hartman's night.

He took only five shifts and finished with a season-low 4:16 of ice time, with Quenneville using it as an opportunity for a teaching moment.

4. Tomas Jurco building confidence back up.

It's been a tough season mentally for Jurco. He started the season with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs after failing to make the team out of camp, and compiled 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games. 

It earned him a call-up on Jan. 8, with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman praising the way he progressed: "He looks like he's totally different, in terms of his composure and ability to make plays. That's why we brought him up here."

The problem? He was a healthy scratch for five straight games and went two weeks without seeing game action with the Blackhawks. Not exactly the best way to keep someone's confidence building. And since then, he's been fighting for a spot in the lineup.

For the last three games, Jurco has been given a shot on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane and he cashed in for his first goal of the season tonight and first since March 27, 2017. It's also the second straight game he's recorded a point.

While he may not be worth much if the Blackhawks were to deal him ahead of Monday's deadline, perhaps a change of scenery to a team that believes in him as a fit will bring out the best of his abilities. The Blackhawks tried and it just hasn't worked out.

5. Blue line observation.

This is more of a big-picture takeaway, but the Blackhawks have gotten only 20 goals from their defensemen this season. The Blue Jackets have gotten a combined 19 from just Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Last season the Blackhawks had 30 total.

The Blackhawks just haven't gotten the offensive production needed from their back end and it's so important as it helps alleviate some of the pressure off the forwards.

I asked Quenneville about this after Friday's game and here's what he had to say: "Whether you score or not, you need the D to be part of your attack, be it off the rush, in zone. But I think the whole game, the whole league is four-man rush game, five-man attacks, coming at you, night-in, night-out, wave after wave.

"But you need to get your D involved in your support on the attack and you need them on the offensive zone off the point. You need some shooters on the back end that can get them through as well. I think offensive production from the back end in today’s game really enhances your offense and your possession game."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets 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. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.