Blackhawks

The "D"-termining factor for the Blackhawks

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The "D"-termining factor for the Blackhawks

"If you look at our goals-against, we gotta tighten up. I think we have the team for it and that's too high right now. Hopefully, on the road trip, we can focus on keeping the goals-against down and have a great last 30 games."

Niklas Hjalmarsson sees it like the rest of us.

Dave Bolland knows it, too.

"Our defensive game -- that's what I think everybody's breaking down, taking care of our own zone. That's one thing we need to focus on," Bolland said.

Giving up just two goals (before the empty-netter) in the rematch against Nashville was an improvement from Saturday night. But even those were off costly turnovers in their own zone that the Predators, well...preyed on, and cashed in.

"Generous" is how Joel Quenneville called it. And it's those mistakes against one of the league's hottest teams and hottest goaltenders that basically hands over two points to a division rival, especially when you're playing without two of your top three offensive players.

Can the Blackhawks clean things up in these last 30 games with the personnel that's in place? It will be the biggest determining factor in where they finish in the Central and West, and how long they last in the playoffs.

The Hawks are the only NHL team without a shutout. The goaltending needs to be better, but more importantly, the entire group in front of them must improve a 2.82 GAA that puts them tied for 20th in the NHL. Last season, the Hawks had the league's 12th-best defense. When they won the Stanley Cup, they ranked sixth.

Right now, just two teams in the West (Anaheim and Columbus) own a worst goals-against average. Of the three division rivals they'll meet 10 times over the final 26 games that will be the biggest determining factor where they'll finish, St. Louis leads the league in that category, Detroit is fifth and Nashville ninth.

The top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will get five days off the ice before returning to practice Monday in Vancouver. From a team standpoint, it's good they're not involved in All-Star weekend, as their ice times have been climbing once again -- Keith back to averaging more than 26 minutes, second in the league. They'll need to be great the rest of the way, but all of their teammates have to be much better.

"We're one of the top teams that has a lot of goals-against," Keith said Tuesday morning. "It's something we need to continue to get better at. It has to be a full team effort -- it's not one player or one group, it's the team."

Quenneville didn't hesitate a short time later when asked about what'll hold this team's fate after this weekend.

"Tighter defensively as a team. We all have some responsibilities in how we play without the puck," Quenneville said. "It's the quality of chances we're giving up and the type of goals. We've got to get better in that area going on the road. It doesn't have to be pretty. I think we'll be playing uglier games."

There's no doubt the coachng staff's message is out, but the execution's been missing and has kept the Hawks from cashing in even more than they did in playing 19 of the last 26 at home following the Circus Trip. As they enter the nine-game stretch that keeps them out of the United Center for nearly four weeks, a "whatever it takes" attitude will be what it takes. Two points will be more important than style points.

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?

Artem Anisimov keeps his vow, dons a mustache and raises his productivity in November

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USA TODAY

Artem Anisimov keeps his vow, dons a mustache and raises his productivity in November

Artem Anisimov wasn’t happy with his October.

The Blackhawks center struggled the first month of the season. Maybe it was adjusting to new line mates after being with the same two for two seasons. Maybe it was just a slow start. Maybe it was more than that. Regardless, Anisimov was frustrated. So as October turned to November, Anisimov told Patrick Sharp that he was going to get back on track.

“He’s scoring lots of goals and he said he was going to in the month of November,” Sharp recalled. “So he’s backing it up.”

Anisimov is doing that, recording five goals in his last three games including a hat trick against his former team, the New York Rangers, on Wednesday. Since November’s start, Anisimov has seven goals.

“My start of the season was not great,” Anisimov said. “But I keep working hard and be focused and say, ‘OK, November. I’m going to step up in November and forward.’”

When told of Anisimov’s prediction to Sharp, coach Joel Quenneville said, “well, now he set a precedent. We’ll have to look for it every month now.

“Quite a standard he was looking to achieve and got off to a great start here,” Quenneville said. “When Arty’s at the net he makes good plays, takes it to the net, draws some traffic to him and opens up other lanes behind him. I still think he has a purpose defensively, which he can add to that line.”

Anisimov’s resurgence coincides with the Blackhawks doing the same thing; after an up-and-down start, both are finding their rhythm again. For the Blackhawks it could be finding some line chemistry. For Anisimov it might be the same thing; he and Kane have been back together since Nov. 12, and those two and Nick Schmaltz have combined for a dynamic second line.

Or is it that mustache that Anisimov’s growing for Movember?

“I thought when you were saying what you were saying (about Anisimov’s vow), he made that statement when he got Kaner back on his line. But I think it was right when he shaved his beard into a mustache. That’s when he took off,” Jonathan Toews said with a laugh. “So that’s the biggest correlation right there.”

OK, teaming up with Kane again probably looms larger. The two have had great chemistry dating back to the 2015-16 season, when they first teamed with Artemi Panarin. Kane’s puck possession helps free Anisimov up to do his work at the net, and he’s been capitalizing there.

“He’s had a great month. He’s just one of those guys who gets to the front of the net and finds ways to be productive,” Kane said. “Maybe seven or eight games ago people were talking about how he was struggling and now he’s having a great start to the season. It shows how a few games can change that but he’s been great for us, not only scoring a lot of goals but a lot of big goals to get some wins.”

Still, hockey players are a superstitious lot. Players have ribbed Anisimov about the mustache — “I asked him to serve me a sparkling water on the airplane because he looks like a waiter in France or something,” Sharp said. But considering Anisimov’s mustache and the points sprouted at the same time, they’re now imploring Anisimov to keep it.

“Yep,” Anisimov said with a grin. “That’s true.”