Blackhawks

Five bold (and not so bold) predictions for Blackhawks in 2017-18

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USA TODAY

Five bold (and not so bold) predictions for Blackhawks in 2017-18

Here are five bold (and not so bold) predictions for the Blackhawks in 2017-18:

1. Brandon Saad will set a career high in goals and points.

We'll start with the most important acquisition of the offseason. There are many reasons to believe Saad will take a giant step forward, none more obvious than reuniting with Jonathan Toews. The two clearly bring out the best in each other by playing that same two-way style of game, and it showed in previous years. Also, reuniting with head coach Joel Quenneville who really believes in his abilities and trusts him in all situations is key. 

And that's really why we expect Saad to have a huge year. He'll get the opportunity to be a consistent top liner, something he struggled to nail down in two seasons under John Tortorella, who bounced Saad up and down the lineup after never quite getting on board with him.

Saad averaged a career high 17:15 of ice time with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, and that number dipped a bit in consecutive seasons in Columbus. For reference, Toews averaged more than 20 minutes last year. We expect Saad to be in that ballpark, with Quenneville using him as a horse.

That's almost an extra three minutes per game, a handful of which will come on the power play and penalty kill. So expect his offensive production to hit career numbers, surpassing the 31 goals he scored in 2015-16 and the 53 points he hit in both seasons with the Blue Jackets.

2. Blackhawks power play will finish in top 5

The Blackhawks power play went from No. 2 in 2015-16 to No. 19 in 2016-17 for a variety of reasons, whether it was the lack of net front presence, always looking for that perfect pass or perfect shot, or being too top heavy. It wasn't a good recipe for success.

It certainly doesn't help losing a top offensive player like Artemi Panarin, but it may not be the worst thing. He and Patrick Kane often looked for each other a little too much on the man advantage, and it sometimes impeded the flow among the five players on the ice.

With the emergence of Nick Schmaltz, the reacquisition of Saad and Patrick Sharp, along with offensively-gifted rookie Alex DeBrincat making the big club, the Blackhawks will have two solid units and won't be as reliant on the first one this year.

3. Corey Crawford will set a career high in wins

For the first time in a while, there's some uncertainty surrounding the Blackhawks' backup goaltending situation. Anton Forsberg is quickly starting to eliminate those concerns, however, after looking really sharp in the preseason and flashing his potential.

But can he continue that level of play on a consistent basis? It would be asking a lot of him to immediately fill the shoes of Scott Darling, who went 18-5-5 in 27 starts (32 games played) last year.

We anticipate Forsberg getting in between 20-25 starts, but Crawford could handle as big of a load as he's ever carried in his career if the race starts to get tight down the stretch.

Crawford's heaviest load came in 2015-16 when he started in 58 games, the same season he set a career high in wins with 35. We expect him to be in that range once again with a few more starts, and see him picking up an extra few wins because of it as well. Let's say 36 or 37.

4. Nick Schmaltz will finish top 5 in team scoring

Is there a player on the Blackhawks roster that noticeably looks like a different player than last year? He looks bigger, faster, stronger, and is extremely confident with the puck, stemming off the second half of last season after his stint in the American Hockey League. There is no doubt in his mind that he can compete at a high level in this league, and it's why he's slotted in at the second-line center position going into the year.

He's got a history of taking a big leap from his first to second year, too.

In his freshman campaign at North Dakota, he registered 26 points (five goals, 21 assists) in 38 games. In his sophomore year, that total jumped to 46 points (11 goals, 35 assists) in 37 games. The same went for the World Juniors, when he recorded one point in five games two years ago for Team USA then bounced back with eight points in seven contests.

Factor in that he'll be playing with Patrick Kane on a nightly basis, and you have yourself a sneaky underrated duo. 

Kane, Saad, Toews and Duncan Keith will likely be among the top of Chicago's leaderboard, but expect Schmaltz to be right there in that mix.

5. Blackhawks won't crack 100 points, but they'll make it out of the first round

Alright, so picking the Predators to beat the Blackhawks last April understandably didn't sit well with many of you (water under the bridge), but there may be a better outlook on this season than people may think.

Don't expect the Blackhawks to compete for the No. 1 seed, though, which is fine. Because last year proved it doesn't really matter. Just get in.

The Blackhawks' top-nine forward group actually looks pretty solid, to go along with a two-time Norris Tropher winner anchoring the blue line and a world-class goaltender as the last line of defense. The blue line could use some additional help if it becomes an area of concern down the road, but they'll have plenty of cap space to work with at the trade deadline to patch up any of those defensive inefficiences.

Finally, the Western Conference is wide open, in a weird way. There are a lot of very good teams, but nobody sticks out from the pack unlike previous years. The opportunity for a deep run is there for the taking, but you can't look too far ahead. Find a way to get past Round 1 and it's anybody's game.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

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USA TODAY

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."