Blackhawks

Tommy Wingels on 'cloud nine' getting to suit up for hometown Blackhawks

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AP

Tommy Wingels on 'cloud nine' getting to suit up for hometown Blackhawks

Tommy Wingels remembers his Chicago youth hockey days. A native of Wilmette, Wingels said the leagues were pretty good then but nothing like the opportunities area kids have to play hockey here now.

“This city has so many youth programs, so much ability for kids to play at every level. If they want to travel, pursue it professionally, if they want to go to college or they just want to enjoy it because their buddies play it. You can do it everywhere around here, and it’s such a unique aspect,” said Wingels. “I think the expectation has changed now. Kids think everyone can make it now. Back then, nobody thought they would make it.”

Count Wingels among those who wasn’t sure he’d make it. But he did, and on July 1 he made a childhood dream come true when he signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. Wingels was elated when Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville called him about his potential signing. The details of those calls? Well, those are a little sketchy.

“I don’t even remember half the stuff they said to me because you’re on cloud nine and you’re saying, ‘Yeah, when can we sign and where?’” Wingels said at the Blackhawks convention on Saturday. “My wife commented on how big of a smile I had [walking] off our porch and back into the living room. It was very exciting.”

As a kid growing up in the Chicago area, Wingels played plenty of travel hockey. He watched the Blackhawks when he could, trying to catch what games were on television at that time. But the thought of playing in the NHL, let alone suiting up for the Blackhawks someday, wasn’t in his mind at that time.

“I wouldn’t say until the middle of high school did I ever think playing professional hockey was a possibility,” Wingels said. “Coming into high school you think college might be one [possibility]. But not until then did I ever talk about it or think about it.”

Wingels said he talked to a good deal of teams in 2006, the first year he was eligible for the NHL Draft, but he wasn’t selected that summer or the next. It wasn’t until the 2008 NHL Entry Draft that former Blackhawks defenseman/now San Jose general manager Doug Wilson picked Wingels, then playing for Miami University, in the sixth round. Wingels was a steady presence for five-plus seasons with the Sharks, putting up career numbers in goals (16), assists (22) and points (38) in the 2013-14 season. Wingels is forever grateful to Wilson for the opportunity.

“He’s the No. 1 reason why I’ve had an NHL career,” Wingels said. “[He had] the confidence to draft me and he was extremely patient in developing me through my years at Miami. He’s one of the best guys I’ve met in the game and I’ve enjoyed all the interactions we’ve had with him. He’s a guy I’ll definitely keep in touch with while I’m here and for many years.”

On the ice, Wingels should help the Blackhawks’ penalty kill and add some necessary grit – “bring in some sandpaper, finish checks and at the same time chip in some goals, all kind of things I think [Quenneville] and Stan expect me to bring here,” he said. Wingels has gone on long postseason runs (2016 Stanley Cup final with the Sharks and the 2017 Eastern Conference final with the Ottawa Senators), and he can be another veteran voice and presence for the Blackhawks’ young players.

“Your star players will lead and be the best players that they are. But for a young guy coming up on the third or fourth line sometimes it’s tough for those guys to relate to the star players, not because what the star players do but they’re guys who are up and down and they’re guys who have different roles. [I’ll] be a part of that group who can help transition the young players, who can play a similar role to some of those other players and be a sounding board for guys as well. I’m 29 now. I feel young but somehow I’ve become a veteran. So I’ll just try to help out any way I can.”

As excited as Wingels is to be home, he said his family may be more so. His parents, Bob and Karen, get to spend more time with Wingels’ 1 ½-year old daughter. The Wingels are close to Scott Darling’s family, and know from the Darlings how great it was to have their son play here.

Wingels grew up wondering how far hockey would take him. Now it’s bringing him back home.

“It didn’t take long to decide this is where we want to be. My wife is extremely happy – she lived here a couple of years out of college and knows the city very well – and I have a ton of friends here with my family being from here,” Wingels said. “It’s going to be a fun year for us and I can’t wait to get started.”

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

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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.