Blackhawks

Ian Cole weighs in on what went wrong for Blackhawks and chances of a Penguins three-peat

ian_cole_jonathan_toews.jpg
AP

Ian Cole weighs in on what went wrong for Blackhawks and chances of a Penguins three-peat

Ian Cole is well familiar with the Blackhawks and the success they have experienced over the last decade.

He's seen in first-hand after spending his first four and a half NHL seasons in the same division as them with the St. Louis Blues before getting traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the deadline of the 2014-15 season.

Like the rest of the hockey community, Cole was shocked to see the Blackhawks get ousted in four games during their first-round series against the eventual Western Conference champion Nashville Predators. But he also understands how taxing it is to play deep into the playoffs on an annual basis, especially when three of them have ended with parades in late June.

"It was definitely surprising because of the caliber players that they have and how good they've been for so long," Cole said at the Chicago Hockey Charity Classic in Geneva last weekend. "But you certainly can sympathize with the fatigue that builds up after playing that many games for that long. How many? Six, seven, eight years now where they've played a lot of hockey.

"Then again, you saw the run that Nashville went on, how well they were playing and they were a buzzsaw for sure. They went through a lot of teams that people didn't give them a chance on. You come up against a hot team, maybe you don't play your best, even for a team like the Hawks you can lose."

While there are a combination of reasons for the Blackhawks' quick exit, one of them may also be attributed to the big gap between the core veterans that have won multiple Stanley Cups and the first- and second-year players with little-to-no playoff experience. 

There was no in between. It wasn't noticeable in the regular season, but it certainly showed in the postseason when the stars weren't at their best.

Coming together and being associated as one unit will be key for the Blackhawks returning to glory, and Patrick Kane training with Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza in Chicago this summer is a great step towards wanting to make that happen.

"Experience helps for sure," Cole said. "I don't think that it's something you want to overlook, but at the same time the guys that were there that didn't have that playoff experience certainly contributed during the regular season, were very, very good hockey players and are very good hockey players, and will continue to be very good hockey players in the future.

"I think their future is really bright. Last year was a hiccup for a really, really good hockey team. I think next year they'll be right back at it. I can't see any other outcome in that."

The Penguins went through a similar situation when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, won it in 2009, and followed that up by winning only one playoff series over the next three seasons. 

A big part of the culture change is when Mike Sullivan took over as head coach in December of 2015. He helped lead the Penguins to two Stanley Cups in an 18-month span, and became just the second head coach in league history to win back-to-back titles in his first two seasons with a franchise.

Rewind a few months back though, and it was actually his third straight year of getting a ring. Sullivan served as a player development coach for the Blackhawks during the 2014-15 Stanley Cup campaign, where he studied individual players and the team as a whole.

Being a behind-the-scenes coach for a championship-winning organization was important for Sullivan's coaching career, and he hasn't been shy about carrying over many of the lessons he learned in his brief stint with the Blackhawks to Pittsburgh.

"He certainly speaks to our defensemen about Duncan Keith and what he does, and Brent Seabrook and what he does, and seeing them close up and how they perform and play in certain situations," Cole said of Sullivan. "He can certainly relate those to us. And it's not anything that you can't find out watching video. There are no secrets, but when you do have that personal experience, you can certainly draw from that and he does.

"A team that has had as much success as the Blackhawks, I think you'd be foolish to not try to learn from what they've done to be successful. And I'm sure teams will try to learn from what we did when we were successful."

Finally getting back on the ice last week to prepare for the upcoming season after another shortened summer, Cole and the Penguins have turned the page and are looking to do something no team has accomplished since the early 1980s: a three-peat.

"It's actually funny, because as soon as we won the second one, people were saying, 'Let's go for three!'" Cole said. "There are some short summers and there's a lot of built up fatigue. You can definitely feel it from the second year of the playoffs as opposed to the first year. There's a lot more fatigue and you certainly hit that wall a lot quicker. ... But it's just one of those things that you have to battle through.

"You're paid to win hockey games and you ultimately want to win the Stanley Cup every single year. Any goal short of that is a mistake. So that's going to be our goal."

But is it actually realistic?

"People said that back-to-back wasn't necessarily realistic based on the history of it," Cole said. "We would love to make it happen. If there's a team that could do it, I think it's us. We all want to make it happen, we all want to go down in the history books that can win three, heck four, go match the Islanders. Can it happen? Who knows. But we're certainly going to try."

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 5-1 win over Jets: Offensive contributions everywhere

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night:

1. A perfect start.

Against a high-powered Jets offense that leads the league in first-period goals (40) and ranked fourth in goals per game (3.41) entering Thursday, the Blackhawks made sure to throw the kitchen sink at Winnipeg in the opening frame.

The Blackhawks scored two goals on their first two shots thanks to Vinnie Hinostroza netting his first of the season and Tommy Wingels scoring his third in four games, and Nick Schmaltz later made it three goals on five shots when he redirected Duncan Keith's shot from the point.

The Blackhawks as a team recorded 24 shot attempts (12 on goal) and generated nine 5-on-5 scoring chances compared to 12 attempts (six on goal) and two scoring chances for the Jets. 

2. Bottom six delivers.

Not only did the Blackhawks score five goals, but they got contributions from all over the lineup, particularly the bottom six yet again. Hinostroza and Wingels set the tone early, and their offense trickled down to the top six. 

On the first goal, Patrick Sharp made a nice play to keep the puck in the offensize zone, capitalizing on a Tyler Myers turnover and sliding a perfect pass to Hinostroza for the one-timer. 

On the second, Lance Bouma's first pass attempt to Wingels from behind the net was blocked by a Jets forward but his second one got through and Wingels made no mistake in snapping it past Connor Hellebuyck.

It's the fourth time in the last five games the Blackhawks have gotten a goal from their fourth line, and the first goal from the third line since Alex DeBrincat was moved up to the first with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad.

3. That pass by Schmaltz...

Already on the scoresheet with a goal in the first period, Schmaltz decided to add to his highlight reel in the way he knows how to do it best.

A little past the midway mark of the second period, Schmaltz jumped on a rebound and fired an unbelievable no-look pass right on Kane's tape, who buried home his second goal in as many games to give the Blackhawks a 4-0 lead.

Kane's reaction said it all:

4. Corey Crawford stays sharp.

In their biggest test to date, the Blackhawks needed their netminder to be on his A-game and he was, not surprisingly, up to the task.

With a 27-save performance, Crawford improved to 8-0-2 in his last 10 starts and hasn't lost a regulation game since Nov. 12 against New Jersey. He's allowed two goals or fewer in each of his last four games, and has a .952 save percentage over that span. He also has given up just one goal or fewer in 10 of 24 starts this season.

Crawford's overall save percentage jumped to .934, moving him into a tie with Andrei Vasilevskiy for the league lead among starters.

5. Blackhawks blue liners making things difficult for Joel Quenneville.

When Cody Franson went down with a lower-body injury, it was Jordan Oesterle who got the call to slide into the top pairing with Duncan Keith and he hasn't missed a beat despite being a healthy scratch in 11 straight.

With Jan Rutta (upper body) out, Michal Kempny got back in the lineup for the first time in 14 games and he made sure to make his presence felt.

He logged 16:30 of ice time, registered five shot attempts (three on goal), a blocked shot and scored the Blackhawks' fifth goal of the game with an absolute missile of a slap shot from the left circle that whizzed above Hellebuyck's right shoulder.

It was an important goal, too, because the Jets had just cut the lead to 4-1 and were making a strong push towards the early stages of the third period.

It's a great problem to have when you have eight capable defensemen, but it calls for some difficult decisions when Franson and Rutta get healthy. Oesterle has done nothing to warrant being removed from the lineup, and neither did Kempny in this one.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

12-14_jets_matchup_nhl_chi_blank.jpg

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Corey Crawford vs. Connor Hellebuyck.

When ranking the importance of goaltenders to their respective teams, these two should be near the top of the list. And they're having Vezina Trophy-type seasons.

Crawford ranks second in the league among starters with a .933 save percentage this season and is 7-0-2 with a 2.18 goals against average and .933 save percentage in his last nine starts.

Hellebuyck on the other hand has arguably been the MVP for the Jets, compiling a 16-3-4 record with a 2.44 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a shutout in 25 appearances. Backup goaltenders Steve Mason and Eric Comrie have combined for a 2-5-1 record with a .897 save percentage in nine appearances. 

They are clearly better when Hellebuyck is in goal, and it's not close. Expect a fun showdown in net.

2. Pick your poison.

There may not be a deeper forward group in the Western Conference than the Jets. They have a dangerous four-line rotation, with the ability to score from top to bottom.

Blake Wheeler has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games this month, and is among the top 10 in scoring with 38 points. Patrik Laine has scored a goal in four of his last six games, while Nikolaj Ehlers has scored in three straight.

And then we get to the bottom six.

The third line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev are the fifth-best trio in the entire league (minimum of 100 minutes) when it comes to possession numbers, controlling 61.38 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, while the fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia is coming off a game in which they combined for five points (two goals, three assists).

This might be the biggest test yet for the Blackhawks.

3. Be ready by puck drop.

No team has scored more goals in the first period than the Jets, who have 40. The next highest team is the Toronto Maple Leafs with 37. 

But the Blackhawks aren't too shabby in the opening frame, either. They rank fifth with 32 goals, although seven of them came in the first two games of the season.

Still, there's no room for a slow start on either side. Two points are on the line for a Jets team aiming for the No. 1 seed and a Blackhawks squad trying to get back into the playoff picture.