Alex DeBrincat

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Penguins: Power play becoming a strength?

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 2-1 win over Penguins: Power play becoming a strength?

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night:
 
1. That's how you start a game.

The Blackhawks haven't had the best of starts over the last couple weeks or so — aside from their recent four-goal first period against New Jersey. But they flew out of the gates in Pittsburgh.

Chicago recorded 27 shot attempts (11 on goal) in the opening frame compared to Pittsburgh's 13 attempts (nine on goal), and led in the even-strength scoring chances department 11-2.

Two of those chances were breakaways from Nick Schmaltz and Jonathan Toews, but both were denied by Matt Murray. The Blackhawks cashed in on one of two power play opportunities, however, and took a 1-0 lead into the second.

2. Power play strikes again.

Speaking of power plays, the Blackhawks came up empty on their first one of the game, but they were handed another one 44 seconds later at the midway mark of the first and capitalized when Gustav Forsling slipped one five-hole past Murray. 

It's the third consecutive game the Blackhawks have scored on the man advantage, something they hadn't done since Oct. 7-12 when they scored in four straight. It's also the second consecutive game the power play unit netted the game winner.

The Blackhawks are 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) on the power play in their last three games after going 5-for-53 (9.4 percent) in their previous 12. 

3. Should Blackhawks have pushed back immediately following Corey Crawford injury?

A scary moment occurred in the second period when Evgeni Malkin swiped Crawford in the mask while racing for a loose puck, forcing the Blackhawks netminder to exit before returning a few minutes later.

Malkin was given a two-minute minor penalty for goaltender interference, but should the Blackhawks have stood up for Crawford at the expense of getting tagged with a penalty themselves?

No question a power play opportunity with a chance to make it a two-goal game at that stage of the game — and against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions who hadn't lost in regulation at home this season going into the matchup —  is important, but the Blackhawks' lack of retaliation was a bit surpising. 

It wasn't a dirty play by Malkin by any means, but there's a principle involved when your goaltender gets hit like that. Those are the kinds of penalties you shouldn't mind taking, and at the very worst it would've been 4-on-4 hockey with one of Pittsburgh's best forwards in the box.

4. Artem Anisimov stays hot.

The goals keep coming for No. 15.

After the Penguins tied it up at 1-1 in the third period with a shorthanded goal, Anisimov scored 21 seconds later on the power play to put the Blackhawks back in front 2-1.

Anisimov now has nine goals in his last 10 games after scoring just one goal in his first 10 to start the season. He also has four game-winning goals on the season, all of which have come this month. Brandon Saad leads the NHL with five.

5. Alex DeBrincat extends point streak.

Lost in the shuffle was the Blackhawks' top rookie getting on the scoresheet once again.

With an assist on Forsling's power play goal in the first period, DeBrincat extended his point streak to four games. He has four goals and two assists in that span, and is averaging a point per game over his last nine (six goals and three assists).

DeBrincat also moved into a three-way tie with Richard Panik and Toews for second on the team with 13 points.

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?

Red-hot Alex DeBrincat sparks Blackhawks in win over Rangers

Red-hot Alex DeBrincat sparks Blackhawks in win over Rangers

A break. A fortunate bounce. A squeaker of a goal. Recently the Blackhawks haven’t had a lot of the puck luck that hockey teams talk about all the time. But when Alex DeBrincat’s shot slipped through New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist late in the second period, the Blackhawks got a big break and didn’t let it go to waste.

Through most of the third period the Blackhawks looked like a more familiar group, one that was opportunistic around loose pucks and rebounds. Artem Anisimov was the main benefactor, scoring a natural hat trick – his first career hat trick – in the Blackhawks’ 6-3 victory against his former team. But the Blackhawks’ overall reaction in the opening minutes of the third period is something they need to build on going forward.

“It was a huge goal for us,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We had a good second period and did a lot of good things and that all of a sudden gets us excited about the third and we had a great beginning.”

The Blackhawks were doing more right in the second period, outside of their power play late in the period. Several in the United Center crowd booed as the Blackhawks came up empty on that advantage, but DeBrincat’s goal not long after changed the crowd’s mood and momentum.

“It’s DeBrincat’s goal. That was the spark. [It was] like, OK, we have a tight game right now, we sat and [thought] about it in the locker room: just go out there and play,” Anisimov said. “It was an important goal for our team game and at the end of the period it gives us a little boost for the third period and we just kept going.”

The Blackhawks needed to reverse their fortunes. There wasn’t much working for them lately; on nights when Corey Crawford was outstanding they couldn’t score and when they did erupt for seven goals on Sunday he had an off night. On Wednesday the Blackhawks were more opportunistic, less panicky when the Rangers started to come back in the third period and composed enough to get a much-needed two points.

And it all started with that DeBrincat goal.

“I think it was kind of a lucky one, just a shot on net trying to create something and it happened to squeak through and gave us a lot of momentum there,” DeBrincat said. “Shoot the puck is the lesson there: good things can happen when you shoot the puck on net."