Blackhawks

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

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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."

Lean on Me: Blackhawks' goalies providing necessary support

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AP

Lean on Me: Blackhawks' goalies providing necessary support

For Corey Crawford, it’s all working pretty well right now. Good anticipation? Check. Lack of rebounds? Check. That glove, which used to draw so much criticism? It’s looking alright, too.

“He’s gotten off to a great start for us,” coach Joel Quenneville said following the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday. “Can’t say enough good things about him.”

While the Blackhawks reconfigure lines to relocate early production and swap right-handed defensemen in and out of the lineup, there has been one constant: their goaltending, particularly Crawford, has been (as Quenneville likes to say) reliable and dependable.

After a barrage of goals in their first two games the Blackhawks have leaned on their goaltenders more in the past four contests. Good thing that Crawford and Anton Forsberg have been up to it. Since he’s started all but one game thus far, let’s look specifically at Crawford: through Sunday afternoon he was tied for first in the NHL in victories (four, with several other goaltenders) and led the league in save percentage (.960) and goals-against average (1.39).

“I feel pretty good. I’m reading the play well, I think,” Crawford said on Saturday night. “Not too many second opportunities, either. If they are, they’re more to the side and I’m just seeing it well and not being overly aggressive. I’m waiting for the chance to be aggressive.”

Crawford has been sharp and busy. Through his five starts Crawford has faced 174 shots (34.8 per game). Only three other NHL goaltenders have faced more (Mike Smith has seen 211 shots through six games, Jake Allen 180 through five and Andrei Vasilevskiy 179 through five). On Saturday Crawford credited the Blackhawks’ defense for the Predators taking more shots from the outside. Sure, but opponents have had their share of odd-man rushes, breakaways and scrums in front of the net.

“I like him around the net,” Quenneville said. “He’s cutting off plays that they’re trying to make that could generate even more chances. His anticipation in that area has been outstanding, he’s been moving the puck well, he’s square and it seems like he’s very involved. A lot of good things have happened in a couple of games but Crow’s been rock solid.”

The Blackhawks are trying to find the right lines in Nick Schmaltz’s absence. They’re doing the eight-defensemen juggling act and trying to work everyone into the lineup. They’re once again struggling on the power play. When other parts of your game are a work in progress you need a constant. So far, the Blackhawks’ goaltending has provided that. 

Blackhawks will take OT victory but need sharper starts again

Blackhawks will take OT victory but need sharper starts again

Patrick Sharp’s backhand shot slipped past Pekka Rinne late in regulation. The Blackhawks’ push, which started midway through the third period, finally yielded them something and led to a 2-1 overtime victory.

The Blackhawks will take it, but it was the second consecutive game in which it took them two-plus periods and a deficit to get anything going. When the Blackhawks were scoring plenty in the first few games this season they were playing with energy and tenacity from the start and didn’t let up. As they continue through a tough stretch, they want to get back to that.

“They controlled a lot of the battle areas, came up with more loose pucks, we didn’t pressure it enough,” coach Joel Quenneville said of the first two periods against the Nashville Predators. “All of a sudden we had some zone time [in the third], got some momentum off that, scored the big goal by Sharpy. Certainly the last 15 minutes of the game, including overtime, that’s what we need to play like more often.”

Sure, Nick Schmaltz’s absence hasn’t helped. The Blackhawks have missed him, and they hope he’s back on Wednesday. But Schmaltz or no Schmaltz there’s enough firepower on this team to generate offense. So what gives? On Saturday there may have been early frustration against a Predators team that’s done that to them a few times.

“I think it was just tough sledding out there,” Sharp said. “That was a well-coached team, pretty disciplined through the neutral zone. I don’t think we exited the zone with possession too many times throughout the whole game so we had to grind it out a little bit I thought in the third period Joel mixed the lines up and got a little offensive zone time. Got a couple shots on net and able to sneak one in there. I still think we’re capable of scoring multiple goals a game. We can score a lot. That’s never a problem.”

It’s ultimately about creating opportunities or taking advantage of those given to you. Speaking of the latter the Blackhawks’ power play, or lack thereof, doesn’t help. In their best seasons the Blackhawks didn’t sweat power-play issues much because their 5-on-5 scoring was strong. When that 5-on-5 production dries up, however, the power play’s issues are magnified. They came up empty in six more power-play opportunities on Saturday night and are now 4 for 27 on the season.

In the Blackhawks’ last two home games they haven’t been offensively sharp out of the gate. It’s taken them quite a while to get going. On Saturday it worked out well but it’s not a habit they want to repeat often.

“We can’t be overly excited with this short little two-gamer at home,” Quenneville said. “I think that you get Schmaltzy back and you get some consistent lines and more predictable line mates. Maybe if we get that it’ll help push one another in the right way and get more consistency and speed in our game.”