Blackhawks

10 takeaways from Winter Classic: Blackhawks put on show, but outdoor struggles continue

10 takeaways from Winter Classic: Blackhawks put on show, but outdoor struggles continue

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Here are 10 takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Winter Classic at Notre Dame Stadium on New Year's Day:

1. Blackhawks remain winless in Winter Classic games

Going into Tuesday, the Blackhawks were 1-4-0 in outdoor games and 0-for-3 in the Winter Classic. They really wanted to turn that stat around and give fans something excited about on the ride home.

But they couldn't exercise their outdoor demons as the Bruins scored the go-ahead goal to break a 2-2 tie with 9:40 left in regulation and it held up as the game winner.

"In the big picture, I thought we did a lot of good things," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Second period I thought we were aggressive and relentless and hard-working and probably deserved better than we got. Unfortunate to come out of the period 2-2. Big picture, we're still on the right path. Unfortunate that we didn't get paid off more for the good things that we did. We had a little lull there in the third and we end up going down. Then it's hard. We're chasing from then on. Disappointing because I think we did enough to probably deserve more."

2. Too many penalties

The Blackhawks were certainly the better team through two periods of play. In the second period alone, they outshot the Bruins 16-10 and generated 19 scoring chances at even strength compared to Boston's six.

But the Bruins scored a late power-play goal — their second of the game — with 1:12 left in the period to tie it at 2-2, which was a killer considering the Blackhawks had dictated the pace of play to that point.

And in the third period, the Blackhawks committed three penalties in the opening 4:56. To their credit, they shut the door on all of them, but too much time was wasted trying to kill them off.

"You never want to take penalties on their half of the rink," Colliton said. "It's not something we want to do. We killed the penalties in the third, we give up 2 in the first two penalties. But we killed the penalties, we killed the 5-on-3. At that point you feel like, 'OK, we came through this. And we're going to get some energy out it.' But that's the stretch where we were at our worst — those four, five minutes after we got to even strength, we just couldn't get playing again. They scored before we could get it turned around."

3. Striking first again

For the sixth straight game, the Blackhawks scored the first goal. And that has usually ends well for teams that do so in outdoor games. 

In the previous 12 outdoor games, teams that scored first were 10-1-1 — and 15-7-3 all-time. This was the second time in the 13 such games that a team lost in regulation when scoring first.

4. Home team win streak ends

Another thing the Blackhawks had going for them was that home teams in the past six outdoor games were 5-0-1. The Blackhawks played really well and deserved at least a point, but couldn't crack Tuukka Rask for the equalizer as the Bruins netminder finished with 36 saves on 38 shots for a .947 save percentage.

"It sucks we couldn't get the win for our fans," Jonathan Toews said. "It's a memorable moment for everybody and you want to leave the game feeling a little bit better than you are right now. It's unfortunate, but it is a special opportunity to play in this building. It even exceeded my expectations. Just so much excitement to be out there and start that game. We all really enjoyed it."

5. Cam Ward's solid effort

When Ward was announced the Winter Classic starter and not Collin Delia, it didn't sit well with fans that thought the 24-year-old rookie had deserved the net. But as a sign of respect to the 14-year veteran, the Blackhawks gave Ward the start and he was terrific all afternoon.

The 34-year-old goaltender turned aside 32 of 35 shots and had a high-danger save percentage of .917 save during 5-on-5 play. He was arguably Chicago's best player.

"It would've been a lot sweeter if we got the victory in a game that was real close both ways," Ward said. "It could've gone either way, it's unfortunate that you come up short. You definitely want to walk away with a win and give the fans what they want, but I thought we played well.

"Just an unbelievable experience, I'm really thankful I got the opportunity to do it and you're just disappointed that you don't come away with the win."

6. Jonathan Toews ties all-time points leader in outdoor games

With a secondary assist on Dominik Kahun's goal, the Blackhawks captain climbed up the outdoor rankings with seven points in six career games outside. Only Henrik Zetterberg has as many points as Toews all-time in outdoor events.

7. Sellout crowd

The atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium was incredible. Fans were into the game all day long, and it made for a terrific environment.

There were 76,126 fans in attendance, a sellout crowd that is the second-largest in NHL history and first in Blackhawks history.

"I wanted to soak it all in and enjoy it, and it gave me goosebumps right from the beginning when we walked in behind the marching band," Ward said. "I thought that was really neat. This is an experience that nobody will ever get. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially here at Notre Dame, and we enjoyed it."

8. Gary Bettman compliments Blackhawks

The Blackhawks aren't expected to get an outdoor game next season as the NHL prefers to avoid giving teams one in consecutive seasons, but when the NHL commissioner spoke to the media during second intermission he had nothing but positive things to say about the organization and fanbase, and how far they've come.

"The Hawks in their current form — and I mean that over the last decade, particularly since Rocky Wirtz has been running the club with John McDonough — Chicago has always been a hockey city and passionate about the Blackhawks," Bettman said. "Even in the down years, people were just waiting for the opportunity to come back and I think there's no doubt that as not only one of the Original Six franchises, the Blackhawks are a storied franchise, great tradition, great former players who are still active with the club and great, great fans. You see the reaction. And you know what? The team's playing better."

9. Winter Classic first-timers

The Blackhawks have appeared in six outdoor games. The Bruins have appeared in four. But 26 of the 40 players that dressed on Tuesday were participating in an outdoor game for the first time, which says a lot about the state of the NHL.

"This is a young man's league and it's changing every year," Bowman said. "There's more young players playing big roles on their teams. Some teams, 19-year-old players are their best players, so when that happens there's obviously cause and effect, and the guys that are moving out of the game are the older players, so teams are skewing younger. When that happens it's also harder to keep teams together year after year, the way the system we play under. 

"The younger players they obviously have speed and skill in abundance, and those are the things that tend to wear down when you get into your 30s and that's probably why the league is skewing younger. But I think there's never been a better time to be an NHL fan. The product on the ice is outstanding. For new fans to the game, to watch the game of hockey now, when you see these young guys, they're electrifying players and it makes it fun to watch."

10. Wounded Warriors skate with Blackhawks

The day before the Winter Classic, the Blackhawks got a chance to skate with the Wounded Warriors, a group of wounded military personnel, which is something the organization does annually. It was a neat idea to have them participate in the Winter Classic festivities and have them be a part of the experience as well.

"It's awesome," Alex DeBrincat said. "I mean, those guys are heroes and they're heroes to us. So it's definitely cool to be able to skate with them and maybe help their day. They brightened our day, so hopefully we did the same for them. It was just a fun time."

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Reports: Blackhawks among finalists for a pair of international forwards

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AP

Reports: Blackhawks among finalists for a pair of international forwards

The Blackhawks are always active in the overseas market. Over the last few years, Dominik Kahun, David Kampf, Michal Kempny, Jacob Nilsson, Artemi Panarin and Jan Rutta are among the notable Chicago signings that have come from there. 

And they continue to be an attractive destination.

The Blackhawks have reportedly expressed interest in 24-year-old Russian winger Ilya Mikheyev and 26-year-old Swedish forward Anton Wedin, and the feeling is mutual.

Of the 30 NHL teams that have checked in on Mikheyev, TSN's Darren Dreger reported on Tuesday that the Blackhawks are among the finalists — although it appears the Toronto Maple Leafs could be the frontrunners. Mikheyev, who's 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, racked up 45 points (23 goals, 22 assists) in 62 games this season for Avangard Omsk of the KHL, and tallied 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 13 postseason contests. His decision is expected to come this weekend.

Wedin has also reportedly narrowed his list, which includes the Blackhawks. He had a breakout season in the Swedish Hockey League, where he compiled 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 32 regular-season games and nine points (two goals, seven assists) in seven playoff contests with Timra IK.

The 5-foot-11, 194-pound winger is expected to make his decision either before or after the 2019 IIHF World Championship, depending on whether or not he plays for Sweden.

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Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Just how important is special teams in the NHL?

Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, 14 clubs had at least one special teams unit that was ranked in the top half of the league and 12 teams had at least one unit ranked in the top 10.

The Blackhawks finished the season with the 15th-ranked power play and 31st-ranked penalty kill. The Blackhawks' 72.7 percent kill rate is the lowest the league has seen in 30 years.

“The penalty kill is something that clearly has to be better," GM Stan Bowman said. "That was a big disappointment this year, no question about that. So we have to devote some resources to that. Some of it might be players, if we get some players that have that kind of experience or have a history. Part of it is tactically can we find ways to be better. We have a lot of time now to study it and put a lot of our focus on that.”

Jeremy Colliton did not rule out getting external help to improve the PK.

“We’re going to look at everything, for sure," he said. "We’re going to look at obviously tactically and we’re going to look at the personnel and how we’re using guys and try to put them in the best situation we can. And maybe that’s new, different guys who weren’t getting the opportunity. Or maybe that’s someone from outside.”

The Blackhawks did manage to fix their power play issues this past season. When Colliton became head coach on Nov. 6, the Blackhawks power play was near the bottom of the league. By December, the man advantage was dead last, cashing in on fewer than 12 percent of their power plays.

Colliton made Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson his top power play unit and from Dec. 20 till the end of February they were the league's best unit, converting on 35.2 percent of their power plays.  

Gustafsson’s addition to the power play was a major factor in the unit's improvement.

"A big part of our power play progression and transformation from being at the bottom to being in the top group," Bowman said of Gustafsson. "I was really pleased with that and we're going to need him next year for sure.”

If the Blackhawks penalty kill can make strides like the power play did, Colliton’s crew will likely be playing at this time next season.

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