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.

Blackhawks stumble out of the gates against Blues: 'We were brutal'

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks stumble out of the gates against Blues: 'We were brutal'

ST. LOUIS – The Blackhawks’ first tripping came barely a minute into the game. Then came another one. And another. And another. And another. Despite welcoming one of their fastest players back into the lineup, the Blackhawks were overall flat-footed and playing catch-up all night, be it on the ice or on the scoreboard, to the St. Louis Blues.

Nick Schmaltz returned but the effect on the second line and the Blackhawks overall wasn’t immediate. Instead the Blackhawks looked sluggish. Their offensive opportunities were few – a one and done here and there but no sustained zone time or pressure on Blues goaltender Jake Allen – their passing was off and they were on the defensive all night.

And then there were the tripping penalties. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill held up through it, nullifying all five Blues power-play opportunities. But the Blues found other ways to inflict their damage.

“They played well and we were brutal,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “That was a bad start, a bad middle and even [though] it was a little excited at the end it wasn’t very good. That’s as close to brutal as you can get.”

The Blackhawks’ last three games have common themes: they’re outshot for a good part of the game, they’re giving up a good amount of quality shots and then the urgency hits them midway through the third period. For the third consecutive contest the Blackhawks scored two goals late and in two of those three games it wasn’t nearly enough.

“Obviously it wasn’t good enough for two periods. If you take any positives out of this game, it’s the way we played in the third,” Patrick Kane said. “At least we know we can do it. Just gotta do it before our backs are against the wall.”

Why it’s taking the Blackhawks so long to get going, however, is the question. Obviously the Blackhawks’ late third-period pushes show how capable they are of producing when necessary. Said Alex DeBrincat, who assisted on Ryan Hartman’s goal late in regulation, “If we’re would’ve been crashing the net like that all game it may have been a different story.”

But they didn’t. The Blackhawks welcomed back a teammate that’s injected speed into their lineup but the team was once again stumbling out of the gate.

“We’re supposed to be out there, giving our all every minute we’re out there and every shift, go out there and take it a shift at a time and give it all you got every shift,” Hartman said. “We have four lines that can roll so there’s no excuse for not going out there and putting all your energy out there for a shift and getting ready for the next one.”

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

Welcome back: Return to the booth is Eddie Olczyk's 'best medicine'

ST. LOUIS – Eddie Olczyk’s morning at Scottrade Center was full of hugs and handshakes, of questions and encouraging words, of smiles and even some tears.

It was a busy morning but a good one for Olczyk, who Wednesday night will do his first hockey broadcast since being diagnosed with colon cancer in August. For the first time in a while, Olczyk felt like himself.

“It feels normal. It feels comfortable,” said Olczyk, who will be alongside Doc Emrick when the Blackhawks face the St. Louis Blues. “I just feel invigorated. Seeing a lot of familiar faces, guys busting chops and a lot of well wishes.”

Olczyk went through his usual game-day routine, including quick chats with Blackhawks players following skate. On Wednesday those talks were that much more special, for both sides.

“Great to see him,” said Ryan Hartman. “When I first saw I was pretty excited to see him back. It’s definitely a presence you know when you’re watching games, that voice you heard growing up. He looks good, looks healthy. He’s in a battle but he looks really good.”

Olczyk will also be in the booth on Thursday night when the Blackhawks host the Edmonton Oilers. Past that, he’ll play it by ear. He’s talked to NBC and Blackhawks president John McDonough, who Olczyk said gave him an “open canvas” in terms of scheduling. If Olczyk feels good on Saturday and the Blackhawks play on Sunday, he’ll try to get back in the booth.

“We think about him every day and we’ve had the pleasure of having him come by a couple of times. Having him be here today for a road game is great to know,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But he has a tough battle ahead of him and he’s doing everything he can to fight it. We support him every single day.”

Olczyk started chemotherapy treatments in September and he has his good and bad days. Those will continue for a while. So will his fight to completely beat this. But for at least the next two nights Olczyk gets to return to a normal routine, and that’s the perfect panacea for a trying time.

“I’m overwhelmed with everybody,” Olczyk said. “But this is the best medicine I’ve had in a long time.”