Blackhawks

Boden: Blackhawks know their potential

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Boden: Blackhawks know their potential

Ken Hitchcock and the Blues had been, deservingly, receiving league-wide praise for how the teams performed the past month since he took over behind the bench. Hes the Point-B-to-Point-C Cup-winning coach brought in to mold a young, talented group of Blues into realizing their potential. So far, hes been doing just that. And quickly. Without being totally healthy.

But Saturday night, Hitchcock could only praise the team that cooled off his up-and-comers.

They (the Blackhawks) treated it like a playoff game, Hitchcock told reporters. Because that was as hard and competitive a game as weve had since Ive been here. They really came to play.

While St. Louis is still discovering its potential, the Blackhawks know theirs. And so do fans. The core, and all the pieces around it, should still be in the Stanley Cup discussion deep into next May. This was confirmed in their fast start, but it was a pace no team can realistically keep up for six months. Every game they dont look that way brings another dose of panic outside the locker room, wondering why they cant copy their best games, night in and night out.

Theres no perfect team in this league thats as competitive as its ever been. The Blackhawks are still among the best, but figuring out what itll take to get as close to that as possible. Theyve swallowed some medicine the past three weeks by underestimating opponents, and not being as ready for the puck-drop as guys in the other sweaters. The times they do, they can only hope it doesnt make them even more uncomfortable when its time to count points the first weekend of April.

But Saturday in St. Louis was Exhibit A of what this teams capable of doing. Joel Quenneville will keep tinkering. Stan Bowman will be tweaking when he senses he needs more than what he has in place. Itll happen sooner if he senses there are more efforts like last Tuesdays than the one he saw Saturday night. It could be a hungry kid from Rockford wholl add some energy, or a veteran or two, now that the GM enjoys some salary cap flexibility. And hell probably know a lot more based on how his team responds to the heavy home schedule these next six weeks. Monday could be a nice barometer about how long their memory is, since that same Phoenix team they looked so bad against pays a return visit, just six days later.

Ripple Effects in Pebble Beach
Elliotte Friedman of the CBC shared an interesting nugget Saturday night about NHL Realignment options thatll be discussed, perhaps proposed, at the Board of Governors meetings that begin Monday in Pebble Beach. I like the idea, but its unbalanced and probably wont stand a chance of surviving.

In it, the Blackhawks get to keep all their big rivals in an eight-team division thatll also include Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Dallas. The other eight-team division includes all the other teams in the Mountain and Pacific time zones. But the top four in each division would advance to the playoffs, and with the two other Eastern time zone divisions containing just seven teams each, you can hear the yelling now from those fifth-place finishers in the eight-team divisions. What if the Blackhawks wound up fifth in that division in the future? On top of that, the only way to balance it geographically would be the same scenario thats being discussed now sending Detroit, Nashville or Columbus to the East. And that still leaves unbalanced divisions. Itll be interesting to see if they reach a final decision on it as soon as this week, with the most likely scenario being Detroit to the East, Winnipeg to the West. And probably no one except those two teams real happy.

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?