Five Questions facing the Blackhawks as regular season begins

Five Questions facing the Blackhawks as regular season begins

The Blackhawks wrapped up their preseason schedule on Saturday night, a youngster-laden lineup falling 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues. The regular season is just about upon us.

But before they open against the Blues again on Wednesday, the Blackhawks have some tough decisions to make. Who stays? Who goes? And once decisions are made, how do things line up (and pair up) heading into Wednesday?

Coach Joel Quenneville told traveling media prior to Saturday’s game that the final roster should be set by Monday; all NHL team rosters must be finalized by 4 p.m. CT on Tuesday. So since it looks like we have a couple of hours before we know the Blackhawks’ answers, let’s look at Five Questions heading into the season opener.

1. Which prospect will make an impact first? Tyler Motte looks like he’s ready for this show. The forward has been great throughout camp, be it 5-on-5 or on the penalty kill. He had plenty of work on the latter while at the University of Michigan, and it shows. Working with Marcus Kruger on the kill doesn’t hurt, either. Where Motte fits in the lineup is a guess right now – the Blackhawks left most of their veterans at home for their preseason finale on Saturday. We should get our first look on Monday, when the Blackhawks return to practice. But in preseason games, wherever he was put in the lineup, Motte played well. Several prospects had good camps, but Motte stood out from the start.

2. Will Alexandre Fortin stay with the Blackhawks this season? You wouldn’t have thought so when the 19-year-old first signed his three-year contract at the start of September, and that’s not a knock on him. Teams just have to think long and hard about burning the first year of a player’s entry-level deal. But as Fortin’s camp has progressed, the Blackhawks’ high opinion of him has grown. Asked earlier this week if the Blackhawks could exercise the 10-game option with Fortin coach Joel Quenneville said, “yes, we could.” Let’s see how this one plays out. As previously written, Brandon Saad wowed out of camp in 2011, was so-so in his first two regular-season games and then was sent back to Saginaw. If Fortin is a big help immediately, he stays. If not, Fortin goes back to his junior team after a few games. Either way, it’s a pretty nice “dilemma” to have.

3. Will World Cup end up being beneficial for those who played in it? The Blackhawks had a slew of guys playing in that tournament, the last of them (Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford) returning late last week. Of the three, Crawford is the only one who saw any preseason games with the Blackhawks – he practiced plenty but only played one-and-a-half games with Team Canada. In terms of preparation, the World Cup should be the best training camp those players had. That includes defenseman Michal Kempny, who got his first big taste of hockey on smaller ice. Great competition and playing games that meant something in September are two benefits for players coming off a rare long offseason.

4. Is Duncan Keith good to go? Keith was disappointed to skip World Cup to make sure his surgically repaired right knee was ready for the season, but it’s looking like he made the right choice. Keeping Keith off the ice, especially early, was probably a tough task for the Blackhawks’ coaches – hurt, healthy, he wants to be out there. But it was the best move for Keith, who looked good in the one preseason game he played last week. Will there be a little rust? Possibly. But in terms of health, Keith said following last Tuesday’s game, “I’m happy the way it is, I’m excited the way it’s been [going], and I think it will be good going forward.”

5. How long will Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin stay apart? As long as the Panarin-Jonathan Toews combination works. The first time that top line struggles, or the Blackhawks aren’t getting what they want out of this balanced lineup, the familiar second line will be back together again. You’ll also see that trio (Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov) together on the power play, so the combination won’t completely go away. Again, breaking Kane and Panarin up was not a popular choice; the two clicked beautifully. If the Blackhawks sputter, they’ll be reunited.

Life was a lot different last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs

Life was a lot different last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs

For the first time in a decade, the Blackhawks officially will not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With a 5-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night at the United Center, the Blackhawks will be sitting at home mid-April instead of looking to add to their trophy case.

Exactly 366 days before, the Blackhawks actually became the first NHL team to clinch a playoff berth, also the result of a game against the Avs:

The last time the Blackhawks missed the playoffs, Denis Savard was the coach and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were just 19 years old in the midst of their rookie seasons.

The next year, Joel Quenneville took over as coach after four games and led the Blackhawks all the way to the Conference Finals.

Of course, the following year (2009-10 season) brought the first of three Stanley Cups.

For perspective on how incredible this stretch has been for the Blackhawks, here's how the other professional Chicago sports teams spent 2008:

—The Bears finished 9-7 in Matt Forte's rookie year (he's since retired) with Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback and Lovie Smith as head coach.

—The Cubs led the National League in runs scored en route to a 97-win regular season...before falling flat against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. Lou Piniella was still the manager and Theo Epstein was still three years away from coming to Chicago.

—The Bulls found some incredible luck, pulling the No. 1 overall pick and selecting Chicago native Derrick Rose. He helped the Bulls to a 41-41 season as a rookie under coach Vinny Del Negro.

—The White Sox lost to Joe Maddon and the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS after winning the AL Central under manager Ozzie Guillen. Carlos Quentin enjoyed a breakout season (36 HR, 100 RBI) while Gavin Floyd won 17 games. 

The Blackhawks still have eight games left before the 2017-18 season ends April 7.

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

Alex DeBrincat records third career hat trick, but Blackhawks lose to Blues in overtime

For Alex DeBrincat, it was probably nice to hear Chelsea Dagger again.

But how about three times?

The 20-year-old rookie snapped out of a 13-game scoring drought in a big way on Sunday night, recording his third hat trick of the season. DeBrincat did all he could to help give the Blackhawks two points, but they only came away with one in a 5-4 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues.

DeBrincat is now the first rookie in franchise history with three hat tricks in the same season, passing Steve Larmer. His last two hat tricks came against the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 27, 2017 and Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 25.

"It's pretty cool," DeBrincat said of his third hat trick, "but I wouldn't be able to do that without the guys we have in this locker room and the linemates I've had. Most credit to them."

Entering Sunday, his last goal was on Feb. 17 against the Washington Capitals.

"Obviously it's frustrating when you go through a slump that like that but what I've learned is to stay positive and there's other things you can help your team win with," DeBrincat said. "Just kind of focus on those things."

He netted goals No. 23, 24 and 25 on the season, tying Patrick Kane for the team lead. He is also tied for second among goals scored by a rookie this season.

DeBrincat opened the scoring with nice wrist shot on the power play to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead midway through the first. With less than a minute to go in the period, he tapped one home in front of the net to make it 2-0.

In the third period with the game tied at 3-3, DeBrincat put his team in front 4-3 with 3:13 left in regulation. 

“We were talking about [DeBrincat] today, it had been a while since he had scored," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But whether he scores or not, he does a lot of good things in the game, and he’s very aware of his positioning, and doing the right things, finding pucks, getting in shooting lanes, or denying passing lanes. So he’s effective in a lot of ways, but nice to see him score a nice power-play goal today.”

But Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo even things up again after a shot from the point found its way past J-F Berube with 1:22 left. Patrik Berglund would net the game-winner in overtime to hand the Blackhawks a loss.

"I feel like we’ve played well and we just came up a little bit short," DeBrincat said. "I feel like that’s been the theme of this whole season.”