Brandon Saad recalls the greatness of Team North America


Brandon Saad recalls the greatness of Team North America

Brandon Saad remembers the lineup looking pretty good from the start. The Blackhawks forward was considered an elder statesman on that 23-and-under Team North America but what the group lacked in experience it made up for in confidence.

“Right away when you looked at the roster and saw the speed and skill we had and we had success, whether it was exhibition or the real thing. We were a confident group right off the get-go,” Saad said. “Once we started winning games it just builds that confidence and you kind of get that swagger. We just had fun with it and we knew what we were capable of.”

The World Cup of Hockey wrapped up in Toronto last Sept. 29, with Team Canada winning another gold medal in another international competition. But it was Team North America that, despite not getting to the medal round, left the biggest impression. It’s high-skill, up-tempo style was exhilarating, not just for those who watched it but for those who were a part of that team.

“There was so much enthusiasm from the players that it made every practice, every team meeting, every game,” said former Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, who was an assistant coach for North America. “I told a lot of people that game against Sweden one of the most fun game I was ever involved in. Any time you can coach not just young players but young elite players, it just made it real enjoyable for everybody.”

It wasn’t the most structurally sound team, especially on defense – as Saad said, “it wasn’t too strenuous. We had our structure and our game plan but a lot of it was just letting us run with it and be creative offensively.” Yeah, that style probably wouldn’t work long-term for an NHL squad. But considering the talent on that team – including Saad, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Jonathan Drouin – it was understandable that coaches just let them rely on their strengths.

“There were a couple of parameters of how we wanted to defend,” Tippett said. “But the main thing is if we used our skill to the best capability we could and force teams on their heels and we were able to do that a lot.”

Unfortunately, the skill, speed and overall dazzling play didn’t get them far enough. North America lost to Sweden in overtime on Sept. 21, denying them a shot in the knockout stage.

“Everybody was really looking forward to getting that one game against Canada and we didn’t make it by a point or whatever,” Tippett said. “But that one game against Canada before the best of three would’ve been a pretty exciting game.”

There will be a World Cup of Hockey in 2020 but will there be a Team North America? Considering how stellar it made the competition in 2016 it would be a shame if there wasn’t. Saad wouldn’t be eligible for it the next time – he’ll be 25 in late October – but he nevertheless hopes Team North America lives again.

“It was a unique situation for a lot of young players to get a chance to play, whether they wouldn’t play on the big squad or crossing over and playing with different countries,” he said. “It’s a pretty neat experience so I think it’s a pretty cool thing to continue going forward.”

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.