Brandon Saad

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?

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime win over Hurricanes: Alex DeBrincat's breakout game

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime win over Hurricanes: Alex DeBrincat's breakout game

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night:

1. Stumbling out of the gates, again.

For the second straight game, the Blackhawks lacked some jump from the get-go and spent the first half of the opening frame chasing the Hurricanes, who peppered 14 shots on goal in the first 10 minutes.

To the Blackhawks' credit, they bounced back and finished the period with 30 shot attempts (16 on goal) but not before allowing two goals to Brock McGinn — his first of the night — and Jeff Skinner. They also came up empty on their lone power play opportunity.

The Blackhawks have now been outscored 11-8 in the first period since the first two games of the season when they outscored Pittsburgh and Columbus by a combined 7-0.

2. Where did that come from?

The Hurricanes took an uncharactersitic amount of penalties, which led to four power play opportunities for the Blackhawks. And they turned in one of their best efforts in a long, long time on the second of four.

Early in the second period on Marcus Kruger's tripping penalty, the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire two minutes in Carolina's end and were able to cash in at the very end of it when Jonathan Toews fed a beautiful pass to Alex DeBrincat, who buried home Chicago's first goal of the evening. It happened exactly when the Blackhawks' power play expired, but we're still counting it as something they can build off of.

That's one the coaching staff will absolutely circle in the film room, and preach doing exactly that going forward.

3. Alex DeBrincat's breakout game.

The Blackhawks' top prospect hasn't been bad in the early stages of his rookie campaign, but he hasn't been an impact player either. And that's understandable; he's only 19 year old and still adjusting to the league.

He easily had his best game in a Blackhawks sweater to date, showing big flashes of his potential.

DeBrincat scored two goals — both in the second period — and added a pretty assist on Brandon Saad's overtime game winner to help his team pick up an important two points. It was DeBrincat's second multi-point effort of the season, and first career three-point game.

He now has four goals — albeit, two were empty netters — in five games this month after scoring just one in 12 games in October. 

4. Saad makes up for missed penalty shot.

The Blackhawks spent the majority of the game playing catch-up, but they had a prime opportunity to take control early on when Saad drew a slashing penalty that resulted in a penalty shot seconds into a Carolina power play.

Saad was denied by former teammate Scott Darling, and fell to 0-for-3 on penalty shots for his career. It almost served as the turning point in the game, considering the Hurricanes followed that up by scoring a pair of goals to give themselves a two-goal lead.

But Saad made up for that by netting his fifth game-winning goal of the season — second in overtime — when he beat Darling five-hole, snapping a 10-game goal drought. It came a game after he registered a season-high eight shots on goal. He was due.

5. Second line leads the spark.

When the Blackhawks fell behind 2-0, it was the trio of Nick Schmaltz, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane that generated a few scoring chances on back-to-back shifts to help tilt the ice in Chicago's favor.

Kane was the only player from that line to get on the scoresheet (one assist) when it was all said and done, but they had the best possession numbers of the four lines, combining for 20 shot attempts (10 on goal).

 

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to Flyers: Lacking the finish

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to Flyers: Lacking the finish

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night:

1. Unfortunate break leads to first goal but no excuse for quiet start.

Despite a three-day break, the Blackhawks got off to a slow start in the first period and didn't exactly get some luck along the way either. Claude Giroux put the Flyers on the board first when he buried a one-timer from Jakub Voracek, capitalizing on a defensive breakdown, but also taking advantage of an unfortunate break for the Blackhawks.

Patrick Sharp tried passing to Duncan Keith, but the puck hit the official's skate along the boards and fell right into the lap of Voracek, who controlled the puck then fed Giroux a pass that eventually led to the goal.

Still, the Blackhawks didn't come out with a lot of push and it showed. They recorded 18 shot attempts compared to the Flyers' 30 in the opening frame.

2. First-line reunion short-lived.

Joel Quenneville tried rekindling some magic that worked pretty well in the same building back in 2010 by reuniting Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line, but it didn't last long.

After a quiet first 20 minutes, Quenneville separated the trio by moving Brandon Saad up to his normal top-line spot at left wing, alongside Toews and Kane to start the second period, and it actually was the team's best line following the change. Saad finished with a game-high 13 shot attempts, eight of which were on goal.

It was his best game in a while. Same with Kane, who registered five shots on goal, and played with a purpose in the third period.

3. Blackhawks have no answer for Flyers top line.

In our Three Things to Watch, we noted how dangerous Philly's Big 3 is and they showed exactly why in this one.

All three of the Flyers' goals came from their first line, and each member found the back of the net: Giroux and Voracek in the first, and Sean Couturier in the second, all coming at even strength. They combined for three goals, four assists, eight shot attempts and six shots on goal.

4. Lacking the finish.

The Blackhawks have statistically been a below average puck possession team this season, but the quantity of shots wasn't an issue against Philadelphia. They had 69 shot attempts (39 on goal) while the Flyers had 52 attempts (31 on goal), and those numbers are even more surprising when you consider Chicago won only 24 of their 73 faceoffs (33 percent).

The quality of the shots wasn't really a problem, either. The Blackhawks had 27 even-strength scoring chances compared to Philadelphia's 20. They just couldn't finish.

The biggest missed opportunity was a 5-on-3 man advantage in the second period for a solid 1:44, yet they came up empty. Those are the kinds of opportunities that can change the complexion of the game.

5. Connor Murphy on the board.

It was a fitting time for Murphy to score his first goal as a member of the Blackhawks, despite it taking 13 games.

With his mom in the arena for the Blackhawks' mother's trip and his dad, Gord, on the home bench as the assistant coach for the Flyers, Murphy broke his scoring slump when he followed up his own rebound and wristed one past Brian Elliott for his first goal since March 21 of last season.

Murphy finished with seven shot attempts (three on goal), two hits and one blocked shot in 12:49 of ice time.