Nick Schmaltz

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to Blues: What's up with the power play?

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to Blues: What's up with the power play?

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night:
 
1. Nick Schmaltz returns but sizzle doesn’t.

You didn’t expect the fireworks of the season opener but you figured Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane would connect pretty quickly again. The speed was certainly there. The connections on passes were not. It wasn’t just that second line, though: it was another night on which the Blackhawks’ offense was sluggish. 
 
2. Tripping along.

I joked that tripping is the new slashing. Maybe that’s not the case league-wide but it was for the Blackhawks on Wednesday night. The Blackhawks took five tripping penalties overall, including three in the first period. It was a clear sign that the Blackhawks were trying to play catch-up all night, and they didn’t fare well at it.
 
3. Power play gets something but…

It took until late in the third period (when the Blackhawks’ offense seems to get going lately). The Blackhawks got two late power-play goals, a reminder of what they can do when they battle for the puck and show some spark.

“Our sense of urgency in the puck area, be it 5-on-5 or on the power play, that’s the differential of keeping the puck in the offensive zone and making plays off it is one of our strengths,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We didn’t do that very often and we haven’t won many battles.”
 
4. Starting slow.

Why these are happening is a mystery, and they’ve been most evident in the Blackhawks’ last three games, which have all come against division opponents. Too much relying on Corey Crawford again and not much in terms of shots, be it quality or quantity through the first two periods. The Blackhawks were outshot 17-8 through the first 40 minutes on Wednesday. While they created little they gave up way too much.
 
5. Patrick Sharp OK?

Sharp was injured late on Wednesday night when the Blackhawks-Blues game got chippy in the final five-plus minutes. Quenneville thought Sharp was fine but he wasn’t positive at the time of his postgame press conference.

No one is more excited for Nick Schmaltz to return than Patrick Kane

No one is more excited for Nick Schmaltz to return than Patrick Kane

The Blackhawks' lines rolled out on Monday morning, with Nick Schmaltz taking his normal spot at second-line center. After missing the last five-plus games this is as positive a sign as the Blackhawks have had that Schmaltz is close to returning.

There will be a few people happy about that, including Patrick Kane.

“With us, we were playing together for about a month there, so you really get used to playing with certain guys and certain line mates,” Kane said. “While he was gone I wasn't very good, so it'll be nice to have him back.”

Let’s just take a quick look at the numbers: In the brief time Kane and Schmaltz played together in the regular season (season opener and the first few minutes vs. Columbus), Kane had two goals and four assists. In the four-plus games since Schmaltz’s injury, Kane has two assists.

Yes, Kane and Schmaltz together worked pretty well. Sure, it’s a small sample size in terms of regular-season games, but they’ve been working together since late summer. Even when they didn’t score they were a threat to do so. The Blackhawks became a one-line team in his absence, so his return should bring balance again.

“One game sampling, and then the whole training camp, obviously he really got us excited with his speed, his presence off the rush, play recognition and his, I guess, synergy with Kaner seemed to be the one thing that was outstanding in the one game. Really noticed [that] right off the bat,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “[Ryan Hartman] did a good job on that line, as well, so you got a little bit of everybody doing a little bit of different things. But his speed is the one thing that you really notice with the last couple of days returning to practice.”

Reuniting with Artem Anisimov didn’t work. Tanner Kero centering that line was fine. Schmaltz and Kane clicked well before the regular season even began and with Schmaltz regaining his health, Kane should regain his production.

“Like I said, you get so used to playing with someone for a month, I don't think that's a knock on anyone else or any of our other center men. Even in those four games I wasn't very good either,” Kane said. “With that being said, he just brings the speed up the middle. And I think the biggest thing with that (is) that a defenseman has to make a decision. If he wants to drop back, he's going to take him away and I get some more time and space. If he wants to come at me, then I can make that play to the middle and maybe have an odd-man rush. That's his biggest asset obviously.”

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.