Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: You Can Breathe, For a Week...

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Hawk Talk: You Can Breathe, For a Week...

Monday, Apr. 5, 2010
9:21 A.M.
By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

So you've been waiting to exhale, and finally allowed yourself to after Sunday's third straight win, where the Blackhawks again looked like...well...the Blackhawks. You probably view a first division title in 17 years a lot like the guys in the locker room did -- nice, but you'd really like to throw bigger parties later. Whatever kind of wakeup call Joel Quenneville and his coaching staff delivered, consider it received within the locker room, and the desired results have followed in the nick of time. Not that the guys didn't realize it, but putting it in play probably took a few more games than they wanted. Now let's see how long it lasts.

Let me know if you agree with the things I've liked the most:

First, they took the ice Sunday knowing the division was clinched by virtue of Detroit's loss in Philadelphia moments earlier. They could've celebrated, taken the foot off the accelerator, and not build upon what they did their previous two games, but they didn't against a Calgary team coming in on a three-game win streak, and desperate for points to make the playoffs. Sure, they own the Flames by sweeping the regular season series for the second straight year. But one stat I love looking at for a sense of how defensively invested and passionate a team is is blocked shots. They had 18 in the win over Phoenix a couple weeks ago, 19 last week in Minnesota, and 16 Sunday (six by Duncan Keith). Yes, there are some bad breaks (physically, and directionally) that can come out of all that diving and sprawling, but I'll take my chances when necessary. Of course, I'm not the one throwing my body in front of 100-mile-per-hour vulcanized rubber. By the way, how's this? Since the opening twelve minutes between the two teams this season, the Hawks outscored Calgary 20-3.

That leads us into the defensive tweaking the coaching staff has done with the blueline personnel. You probably weren't too happy with the trends over about 30 games that started with the first trip to Minnesota. For whatever reason - be it fatigue, boredom, predictability sniffed out by the opposition, the bag needed to be shaken up a bit. Keith and Seabrook together have been great, but like any pairing, inevitably hit their share of bumps. There was the huge vacancy in minutes left by the injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson. They're still dealing with that, but the status quo wasn't providing much hope for a turnaround. So, with the addition of Dustin Byfuglien, Coach Q's shown he's as willing to try some different things on the back end, just as he will up front. That, combined with some greater defensive awareness and better coverage all over the ice, has this team going into the long-awaited final week allowing just two goals over its previous three games. You have to go to a five-game stretch in early December - when the team allowed just four goals, and went 4-&-1 - to find similar results.

Oh, and then there's the goaltending. It's your crease, Antti. You've earned it. You've won it. And the guys are playing as well as they have for some time in front of you. Whether you're the chicken or the egg doesn't matter now. Just try to keep doing what you're doing without thinking too much about the size of the stage and the brightness of the spotlight. You have exactly as much NHL playoff experience as four of your Western Conference starting goalie brethren if the season ended a week earlier (Anderson, Howard, Rinne, and Quick). Nabokov, Bryzgalov and Luongo combined have led a team to a conference final - and no further - once. Even before their shaky post-Olympic play, sorry..I've just never been a believer of the guys in San Jose and Vancouver. The former's a game above .500 in the post-season, the latter exactly .500. Bryzgalov is 9-5, with a 1.68 goals-against and a .937 save percentage between the posts in The Post. Phoenix will need more of that in what looks like a tough first-round matchup, likely against Nashville or Detroit.

The things I've liked most in this "bounce" all have to do with defense and goaltending. We must be close to playoff time. And thankfully, all the projecting, and all the guessing, will start to bring real answers on the ice.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night:
 
1. One too many penalties.

The Blackhawks flirted with danger in the first period when they handed the Lightning three straight continuous power plays, a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty from John Hayden and a Jonathan Toews hooking call that resulted in a 5-on-3 opportunity for Tampa Bay for 43 seconds. 

The penalty kill unit that ranked fourth in the league entering the matchup, however, killed off all three of those penalties against the NHL's top-ranked power play, and did so in commanding fashion.

The Blackhawks went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in regulation, but couldn't stop the sixth one — a questionable slashing call on Nick Schmaltz —  in overtime when Brayden Point buried the winner on a 4-on-3 opportunity.

It was also interesting that Jon Cooper elected to go with four forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Point and Steven Stamkos) and zero defensemen during that man advantage, putting all of his offensive weapons out on the ice. It's something more teams should do in that situation.

2. Patrick Kane gets going.

After scoring just one goal in his previous 10 games, Kane found the back of the net twice in the opening frame against Tampa Bay and stayed hot against a team he historically plays well against. And he nearly netted a hat trick in overtime but couldn't cash in on a breakaway opportunity.

Kane has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 14 career regular-season games against the Lightning, and extended his point streak to five games. He has three goals and four assists over that stretch.

We wrote about how important it is for the Blackhawks' superstars to get going again with the offensive contributions mainly coming from role players as of late, and Kane getting into a groove is a perfect step in that direction.

3. How about that goaltending battle?

Corey Crawford and Andrei Vasilevskiy showed us exactly why they belong in the Vezina Trophy discussion, and as of this moment, it's hard not to include both of them as finalists. They put on a goaltending clinic, seemingly topping the other as the game went on.

The two teams combined for 71 scoring chances, and Crawford and Vasilevskiy came up big when their teams need them the most.

Crawford finished with 35 saves on 38 shots (.921 save percentage) in the loss while Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of 31 (.935 save percentage), and improved to 15-2-1 on the season. 

4. Missed opportunities.

You couldn't have asked for a better start for the Blackhawks. They scored the first goal 3:49 into the game and the second on the power play at 15:54, killed off three penalties, including a 5-on-3, had 24 shot attempts (13 on goal) compared to the Lightning's 16 attempts (11 on goal) and led in even-strength scoring chances 9-6.

It was a different story the rest of the way.

The Blackhawks took their foot off the gas pedal a bit and let the Lightning back in the game by getting away from what they do best, and that's control the puck. Obviously, you expected the league's best offense to push back and it's certainly not an easy task to keep them off the scoresheet all together. 

But the Blackhawks had their chances to stay in front or retake the lead and just couldn't bury them. Tampa Bay had 50 shot attempts from the second period on while the Blackhawks had only 32, and finished with 44 scoring chances compared to Chicago's 27.

5. Richard Panik in the doghouse?

Joel Quenneville didn't go to his line blender in this one, but he did shorten some leashes. Panik, most notably, had a season-low 12:28 of ice time in the loss and had 15 shifts, which was second-fewest only to Ryan Hartman (13) on the team.

Panik had a prime chance to break a 2-2 tie in the third period but was denied by Vasilevskiy, who made a remarkable left-pad save. Instead, Panik extended his goal drought to 12 games and didn't get a shift in overtime.

He's certainly better and will get his scoring chances when playing on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad, but the missed opportunities are magnified in tight losses. It doesn't look like a move down in the lineup is coming given the success of Alex DeBrincat, who gives the Blackhawks an offensive weapon on the third line, but perhaps it should be considered.

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?