Blackhawks want to take the Penguins' place at the top again


Blackhawks want to take the Penguins' place at the top again

When the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted their second Stanley Cup last June, the Blackhawks were well ensconced in their offseason, one that was way too long for their liking. Even after a frustrating and brief postseason, some of the Blackhawks couldn’t help but notice what the Penguins did.

“It was a pretty impressive run,” Corey Crawford said. “A lot of injuries, too. I feel like they had a lot of guys hurt for a long period of time. It was a good run or two runs for that team. We definitely want to be the next team.”

Saying that is one thing. Pulling it off is quite another.

The Blackhawks have lost a few key players from their core and are trying to rebuild their bottom six to what it used to be. There are question marks on defense. And the young guys who made their debuts last season, including Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz, have to take that next step and become contributors throughout the regular season and beyond.

“We’re going to need them,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We had a number of young guys who came in and showed progression over the course of the year. Young guys coming in, [Gustav] Forsling, [Alex] DeBrincat, these guys not just contributing but also absorbing responsibility or leadership or quality ice time. They’ll all be moving up and expected to contribute in a meaningful way and be a part of the group that’ll make us a better team.”

Think back at the depth the Blackhawks had, especially on their 2013 and 2015 runs. When your fourth line is playing key minutes down the stretch or, in the case of 2013, scoring the Cup-winning goal, you know you’re living right. It was also about players who could gut out long games and take on extra minutes when others were lost to injury.

The Penguins’ Cup possibilities were supposed to be dashed when they lost Kris Letang in February. So much for that. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen were supposed to wear out from overuse after Michal Rozsival’s ugly fractured ankle at the end of the 2015 second round. Again, skeptics be damned.

This past offseason the Penguins felt what the Blackhawks have dealt with for several years now: cap issues that forced them to get rid of/not re-sign some key members of their Cup teams. That’s not stopping some from predicting a three-peat for Pittsburgh. Even after losses you can regroup, reload and re-emerge. Just ask the Blackhawks in 2015.

When the Blackhawks see the Penguins on Thursday they’ll see themselves from a few short years ago. They want to get back there. We’ll soon find out if they have the right combination of talent and (especially) depth to do it.

“The game’s so fast, you need all four lines to contribute," Patrick Sharp. "If you’re not chipping in offensively you have to be real solid in all areas, provide some energy and be effective that way. You play 82 games at that high pace, there’s going to be bumps and bruises and there are going to be peaks and valleys. You need a lot of guys to step up at different times. It’s a good thing we’ve got some depth here.”

Life was a lot different last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs

Life was a lot different last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs

For the first time in a decade, the Blackhawks officially will not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night at the United Center, the Blackhawks will be sitting at home mid-April instead of looking to add to their trophy case.

Exactly 366 days before, the Blackhawks actually became the first NHL team to clinch a playoff berth, also the result of a game against the Avs:

The last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs, Denis Savard was the coach and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were just 19 years old in the midst of their rookie seasons.

The next year, Joel Quenneville took over as coach after four games and led the Blackhawks all the way to the Conference Finals.

Of course, the following year (2009-10 season) brought the first of three Stanley Cups.

For perspective on how incredible this stretch has been for the Blackhawks, here's how the other professional Chicago sports teams spent 2008:

—The Bears finished 9-7 in Matt Forte's rookie year (he's since retired) with Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback and Lovie Smith as head coach.

—The Cubs led the National League in runs scored en route to a 97-win regular season...before falling flat against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Lou Piniella was still the manager and Theo Epstein was still three years away from coming to Chicago.

—The Bulls found some incredible luck, pulling the No. 1 overall pick and selecting Chicago native Derrick Rose. He helped the Bulls to a 41-41 season as a rookie under coach Vinny Del Negro.

—The White Sox lost to Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS after winning the AL Central under manager Ozzie Guillen. Carlos Quentin enjoyed a breakout season (36 HR, 100 RBI) while Gavin Floyd won 17 games. 

The Blackhawks still have eight games left before the 2017-18 season ends April 7.

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

For Alex DeBrincat, it was probably nice to hear Chelsea Dagger again.

But how about three times?

The 20-year-old rookie snapped out of a 13-game scoring drought in a big way on Sunday night, recording his third hat trick of the season. DeBrincat did all he could to help give the Blackhawks two points, but they only came away with one in a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

DeBrincat is now the first rookie in franchise history with three hat tricks in the same season, passing Steve Larmer. His last two hat tricks came against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 27, 2017 and Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 25.

"It's pretty cool," DeBrincat said of his third hat trick, "but I wouldn't be able to do that without the guys we have in this locker room and the linemates I've had. Most credit to them."

Entering Sunday, his last goal was on Feb. 17 against the Washington Capitals.

"Obviously it's frustrating when you go through a slump that like that but what I've learned is to stay positive and there's other things you can help your team win with," DeBrincat said. "Just kind of focus on those things."

He netted goals No. 23, 24 and 25 on the season, tying Patrick Kane for the team lead. He is also tied for second among goals scored by a rookie this season.

DeBrincat opened the scoring with nice wrist shot on the power play to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead midway through the first. With less than a minute to go in the period, he tapped one home in front of the net to make it 2-0.

In the third period with the game tied at 3-3, DeBrincat put his team in front 4-3 with 3:13 left in regulation. 

“We were talking about [DeBrincat] today, it had been a while since he had scored," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But whether he scores or not, he does a lot of good things in the game, and he’s very aware of his positioning, and doing the right things, finding pucks, getting in shooting lanes, or denying passing lanes. So he’s effective in a lot of ways, but nice to see him score a nice power-play goal today.”

But Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo even things up again after a shot from the point found its way past J-F Berube with 1:22 left. Patrik Berglund would net the game-winner in overtime to hand the Blackhawks a loss.

"I feel like we’ve played well and we just came up a little bit short," DeBrincat said. "I feel like that’s been the theme of this whole season.”