Corey Crawford

Reasons to be optimistic about a Blackhawks turnaround

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USA TODAY

Reasons to be optimistic about a Blackhawks turnaround

It's mid-November, and the Blackhawks are on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. It's unfamiliar territory for Chicago, which is accustomed to seeing its team as a perrenial Western Conference favorite and Stanley Cup contender.

Since starting the season 3-0-1, the Blackhawks are 6-8-1 in their last 15 games and haven't won more than two in a row yet. It's a little concerning.

But there are reasons to be optimistic about a potential turnaround.

Let's start with the obvious concern: The offense.

If you take away the first two games in which they combined for 15 goals, the Blackhawks would rank 27th in the league in goals per game (2.59). They also went through a stretch where they scored only two goals or fewer in nine of 12 games.

Since then, the Blackhawks have erupted for 15 goals in three games and they're continuing to generate shots at a high rate.

In their last nine contests, the Blackhawks are averaging 38.9 shots per game and rank fifth overall at 34.6. The problem on offense has never been the quantity of shots, it's the quality. They're slowly starting to get both.

And the weird part is? Patrick Kane has four goals in his past 17 games, Duncan Keith has zero goals in 19 games this season, Brandon Saad has one goal in his last 13 and Jonathan Toews has two goals in his last 14, one of which was an empty netter. Those are Chicago's top four horses who are struggling collectively to get on the scoresheet.

Their individual track records suggest they won't stay dry forever.

The Blackhawks' recent offensive hot streak is being spearheaded by role players such as Artem Anisimov (eight goals in his last nine games) and Alex DeBrincat (six goals in seven games this month), the latter of whom has emerged as a darkhorse candidate for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. While it would be unfair to expect him to continue scoring at a goal-per-game pace, DeBrincat's emergence shows he's starting to get comfortable in the NHL and we're seeing exactly what he can bring to the table.

The biggest reason the Blackhawks are staying afloat while the offense figures itself out is the elite goaltending they're getting from Corey Crawford.

Chicago is giving up 33.8 shots per game, which is fourth-most, yet Crawford is making an early case for the Vezina Trophy, sitting at fifth with a 2.26 goals against average and tied for second with a .930 save percentage, including two shutouts.

If there are any doubts about Crawford coming back down to earth, he had a 92.99 save percentage at even-strength last year and 93.32 in 2015-16. Through 16 appearances this season, he's actually a bit below that at 92.47, according to naturalstattrick.com.

Now, in the previous two seasons, the Blackhawks averaged 31.4 and 30.8 shots against, respectively, but the point remains the same that you can consistently count on Crawford playing at a high level.

Did we mention the Blackhawks have the sixth-best penalty kill percentage (82.9) dating back to Oct. 29, 2016? That's a great combination, especially when you have one of the league's best goaltenders to bail you out at times.

Ultimately, the Blackhawks' success hinges on their star players playing like it. Once they get going, the rest will follow. The question is, when will that happen?

'Spoiled' Blackhawks impressed with new state-of-the-art practice facility

'Spoiled' Blackhawks impressed with new state-of-the-art practice facility

The Blackhawks tooled around on the ice of their new building, the MB Ice Arena just a few blocks away from the United Center. To see it, which the Blackhawks had done a few times already, was one thing. To skate in it, work out in it and pretty much make it a second home was another.

“It’s a lot of fun. I’m excited to spend some time here. We’ll be up in that shooting room a lot playing some competitions and stuff,” Nick Schmaltz said of the second-floor target-shooting stations, one of the many perks at their new practice facility. “Hopefully we get an Xbox in the lounge. We’ll be here until 8 every night.”

The Blackhawks going from Johnny’s IceHouse West to this new facility is like Dorothy stepping out of the sepia-toned Kansas and into the Land of Oz. Besides the two NHL-sized rinks there’s the fitness center, the RapidShot shooting machines and a bigger Blackhawks locker room. The Blackhawks reveled in trying some of the amenities for the first time on Thursday.

“It’s always fun to fill it out for the first day,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I thought the ice was great, the boards are great, the building’s bright. Inside the [locker] room there is second to none, has everything you’d ever want, so kind of spoiled in a different fashion.”

Corey Crawford said, “We’re pretty lucky. We’re pretty spoiled to begin with, and now it’s another level. It’s a big facility, and we have everything we need here. It’s pretty great. Definitely thankful for this.”

The Blackhawks have upgraded. Players, coaches and staff already spent a lot of time at the rink. Considering some of the perks at the new place, they may be hanging around the rink that much more now.

“We have a few gadgets and toys that guys want to test out. Upstairs in the gym guys can test out their shot. They don’t have to be on the ice all day. There’s so much space. It’s a great facility all round for guys to take care of themselves – whether it’s during the season or the offseason,” Jonathan Toews said. “Guys are going to want to be around here all day every day.”

Five Takeaways from Blackhawks' high-scoring loss to Devils: Disappearing act in the second

Five Takeaways from Blackhawks' high-scoring loss to Devils: Disappearing act in the second

Here are Five Takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 7-5 loss to the New Jersey Devils.

1. Disappearing in the second.

The Blackhawks couldn’t have asked for a better first period, when they took a 4-2 lead. But they did a 180 in the second. Part defensive lapses, part New Jersey opportunism, but by the end of the period the Devils were up 6-5. The Blackhawks have had their second-period struggles in the past – and not just relegated to this season – and Patrick Kane’s power-play goal at the end of it took some of the sting away. Still, the Devils were dominant through those 20 minutes.

2. Alex DeBrincat looks good again.

It was a nice weekend for the 19-year-old, who finished with three goals and an assist in the last two games. DeBrincat wasn’t on any specific line – the Blackhawks went with seven defensemen, and we’ll expand upon that in the next takeaway – but no matter who he’s been with, DeBrincat has made things happen.

3. Ryan Hartman scratched.

The Blackhawks changed things up on Sunday, going with seven defensemen. Sitting was Hartman, who didn’t play the final eight-plus minutes against the Carolina Hurricanes, either. Asked if there was something specifically Hartman did or didn’t do, coach Joel Quenneville said, “we just have some guys who are all comparable and we make decisions on who’s in and out of the lineup. And we wanted to try the seven [defensemen] look with double-shifting a couple of guys with Cat whether it was anybody off Arty’s line, particularly Kaner, was the thought process with that.”

4. A bad night for Corey Crawford.

The Blackhawks have the points they do in large part due to Crawford’s work this season. But Sunday was not his night. Crawford was as shaky as the defense in front of him, allowing six goals on 25 shots through the first 40 minutes. Anton Forsberg replaced him to start the third period.

5. Great game for the Devils.

New Jersey could’ve faded late in the first period, when the Blackhawks took a 4-1 lead. Instead the Devils buckled down and outplayed the Blackhawks through the final 40 minutes. We talked about their second period above. They were just as good to start the third, peppering Anton Forsberg with eight shots in the first 2:21 of the period and scoring a power-play goal for a 7-5 lead (Miles Wood completed the hat trick).