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.”

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act


Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-2 win over Coyotes: Puck don't lie

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night:
1. Surviving a crazy first period.

The Blackhawks committed four penalties in the opening frame within a 2:18 span, and escaped unscathed from it despite a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities for the Coyotes.

Of course, the only goal allowed in the period came from a fluke deflection off Jordan Oesterle's stick and slipped underneath Corey Crawford's five-hole.

Joel Quenneville likes to say the team that takes advantage of their 5-on-3 opportunities has a pretty good chance to win the game. It applied in this case, with the Blackhawks coming out victorious after surviving that stretch.

2. Power play comes alive early.

The Blackhawks got off on the right foot in an area that has been an issue for them this season, capitalizing on their first power play of the game 24 seconds into it when Richard Panik redirected a Jonathan Toews shot that tricked past Louis Domingue.

Good thing too, because it was the only man advantage they'd get. Well, excluding the power play they received with 17 seconds left in regulation when the game was already decided. 
3. Another controversial review in Arizona.

What's with it with controversial reviews in Arizona and the Blackhawks being on the wrong end of the call?

The Blackhawks appeared to have taken a 3-1 lead when Tommy Wingels converted on a penalty shot, but it was overturned after officials reviewed it and determined the Coyotes netminder got a stick on Wingels' initial shot. Replays didn't exactly show conclusive evidence, but the NHL released a statement proving otherwise:

Video review determined that Wingels shot the puck into the net after Arizona goaltender Louis Domingue made contact with the puck. According to Rule 24.2, "No goal can be scored on a rebound of any kind."

Shortly after, the Coyotes scored in the final minutes of the period to even up the score at 2-2 in a big turn of events at the time.
4. ... But puck don't lie.

The overturned penalty shot didn't matter in the end though, because the Blackhawks came away with the victory and Wingels ended up getting his first goal after all on an empty netter that iced the game.

It was Wingels' first goal as a member of his hometown team, and it was well deserved for a guy who was part of the fourth line that turned in arguably their best performance of the season.
5. Lance Bouma rewarded with game-winning goal.

Speaking of which, it was fitting that Bouma scored the game winner with 4:24 left in the third period because that trio of Bouma, Wingels and John Hayden was around the net for the majority of the night.

They combined for two goals and two assists, had eight attempts shot attempts (five on goal), eight of the team's 16 hits and four blocked shots.