Blackhawks

Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

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Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

General Manager Stan Bowman answered questions for 25 minutes Wednesday at the United Center. The impression he left was more "stay the course", rather than "shake it up."

Blackhawks fans, columnists, and Twitter accounts are already in debate on whether that's the right course of action after a second straight first-round playoff exit -- this time without the short summer or before opening up salary cap space that allowed him to shape this past season's roster as he saw fit.

The remainder of the week will include coaching and management skill sessions about the areas that need shoring up, either from the outside or from within. But as I wrote in my Blackhawks Talk post back on March 28th, a lot of what you've seen is probably what you'll get. Sure, this week's meetings may end up determining from within that there's more that needs fixing than Bowman shared on Wednesday, but unless there's a taker out there for a few of the Hawks' more inconsistent players who have yet to reach the organization's projections, there's a lot of money already committed within the present roster. If not, they need to gamble with packaging some promising youth for veteran pedigree and production.

It sounded as if it's been already been decided that Patrick Kane's a center next season, that he can reach his full potential in that role, rather than staying on the wing with Jonathan Toews or an imported second-line pivot. If that's the case, Kane's summer should be spent preparing himself for eight months of more defensive responsibility, and trying to make the opposition adjust to his speed and quickness over any adjustments he'd need to make against bigger opponents in a 200-foot game. But as my pre- and post-game colleague Steve Konroyd has pointed out several times, Kane loves a challenge, and has spent 23 years proving people wrong. If that's his assignment, and his immediate future, he'll try to do that yet again.

I asked Duncan Keith about the toll of all the hard minutes he and Brent Seabrook play as their careers go on, and whether they would benefit from more consistently reliable blueliners behind them to pick up at least some of the slack. I'm with him when he calls Nick Leddy reliable -- as long as Leddy uses the summer to bulk up. But he also called Hjalmarsson and Montador reliable. I wasn't about to get into a public argument with him about his teammates to his face, but there's a contractual commitment to those two to fill out the defensive corps, and they'll need to have better seasons next year. Whether the size they need for a sixth defenseman is served by Dylan Olsen or an import, the second and third pairings need more positive consistency to make Keith and Seabrook even better, not to mention Corey Crawford.

That brings us to an interesting observation by Bowman that brought some perspective about the secret to success of this year's Western Conference final four. Everyone can't help but see the keys for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Phoenix: Great goaltending and solid defense surrounding the net. Those four teams finished in the top ten in regular season goals-against average. After Corey Schneider in Vancouver (hellooo, Bobby Lu?), Elliott, Quick, Rinne and Smith own the next four GAA's and save percentages among the regular starters through round one. So, obviously, the Hawks need to go out and acquire an elite goaltender, right?

Said Bowman:

"It really is something that changes year-to-year, or every couple years. Styles change. Two years ago, we won the Cup, and two unheralded goaltenders went to the Finals in Niemi and Leighton. Everyone was saying, 'I guess goaltending's not that important. You don't need to have a supposed great goaltender to win the Cup.'

"Here we are, two years later, and it's shifting back the other way. Whatever's happening that season, people put emphasis on. This year, goaltending had really ruled the league. Is that the way it's going to be, going forward? It's tough to predict. You can't be too re-active to what other teams do. You have to look at your strengths and play to what they are. We have a lot of talented offensive players, and you don't want to take away from the strengths of this team. I think getting them to play responsible hockey, and not giving up too many opportunities is something we want to focus on."

Based on the tone of that, as well as other comments Wednesday, it's how the Blackhawks intend to move forward. If they do, indeed, "stay the course," we'll know a year from now whether that call turns out to be the right one. It sounds like that's what Bowman's banking on.

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?