Blackhawks 'pleased' with first half of season but aren't satisfied


Blackhawks 'pleased' with first half of season but aren't satisfied

The Blackhawks kicked off the 2015-16 campaign by going 7-6-1 in their first 14 games, which may not have been too surprising considering a shortened offseason coming off their third Stanley Cup since 2010.

Since then, they've been 18-7-3 and are clicking on all cylinders right now.

Corey Crawford is playing the best hockey of his career, leading the league in shutouts with six, and sneaking his way into the Vezina Trophy discussion as the NHL's top goaltender. Patrick Kane is on pace to win the Art Ross Trophy for most points during the regular season, running away with the league-lead at 60. Artemi Panarin, who has four goals in his last two games, leads all rookies in goals (15), assists (23) and points (38), by a landslide.

Following Wednesday's 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center, the Blackhawks secured their fifth straight victory and have officially passed the halfway mark of a regular season they normally play on cruise control.
It's all coming together.
The challenge now is keeping it that way.
[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
"It was good. Ups and downs, but, you know, short summer, you never really know what to expect," Kane said of the team's first half of the season. "I thought we put ourselves in a good position, we're not really behind the eight ball right now where we've got to play catch up the rest of the season, but we do want to improve every game and keep building towards becoming a better team when the playoffs roll around. It seems like things are headed in the right direction."
The Blackhawks are six points behind the Dallas Stars for first place in the Central Division, and are slowly separating themselves from St. Louis in second. It likely won't stay that way throughout the year, but gaining any sort of ground is crucial in the league's toughest division.
The Stars won't slip up any time soon. If they do, they've built a big enough cushion to correct it before anybody catches up. The Blues will hang in all season long, as will the Wild. The Predators, who acquired first-line centerman Ryan Johansen from the Blue Jackets for defenseman Seth Jones in a blockbuster trade on Wednesday, surely won't go away either. Even the Avalanche have crept back into the conversation.
The key for the Blackhawks has been responding as well as they could to an offseason that saw their roster turned over.
Patrick Sharp was dealt to Dallas, where Johnny Oduya followed. Brandon Saad was shipped to Columbus. There was no room for Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette to return, two players that played integral roles during last year's championship run.
Like it or not, the salary cap makes it difficult to keep the same roster year after year. 
But as guys leave one door, new ones come in another, such as Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin, both of whom have exceeded expectations in their first season with the Blackhawks so far.
[MORE: Blackhawks: Panarin scores two more in victory over Penguins]
"I think some young guys have come in and done a really nice job as far as playing hard and fitting into our team," Kane said. "We've made some good trades, picked up some good players. You look at the Anisimov factor, he's been maybe the X-factor of our team so far. Then Panarin's been awesome too, you pick him up as a free agent. And then the young guys coming in, you've got to be very happy with them. I think us so-called core guys want to keep pushing everyone and keep getting better ourselves too.
"By no means are we satisfied. We want to keep pushing and, like I said, keep getting better especially as the end of the season rolls around here."
Andrew Desjardins, who has four goals in his last five games, doesn't quite qualify as a young guy, but he may still fall under the "new guy" category as he's experiencing his first full season in Chicago after being acquired in March of 2015 and contributing to the team's Stanley Cup run.
Seeing the grind of an 82-game season first hand while having a target on their backs on a nightly basis, Desjardins knows the Blackhawks can't get complacent.
[RELATED: Toews joins Kane on All-Star team]
"We're trying to get better and better," he said. "Obviously we're on a good little stretch here. We're playing better in our own end, keeping pucks to the outside, defensive zone, puck management. I think we're pretty pleased right now."
Forty-two games down, 40 more to go. The dogs days of the season, which is even more difficult as reigning Stanley Cup champions, are quickly arriving, but the Blackhawks will take it one game at at time, like they always do, because that's all they really can do.
"Try not to worry about looking too far ahead," Kane said when asked what the Blackhawks must do to sustain their first half success. "Focus on, it's easy to say, one game at a time and focus on trying to get better as the season progresses kind of near the end of the season and into playoffs. I think we've done a good job of that.
"I think we've kind of been heading in the right direction since the start of the season, but we don't want to be satisfied with where we're at. We want to keep getting better."

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'


Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?