Blackhawks getting a deeper glimpse of the future with Dylan Sikura, Blake Hillman, Collin Delia


Blackhawks getting a deeper glimpse of the future with Dylan Sikura, Blake Hillman, Collin Delia

The final five games of the season are meaningless for the Blackhawks. In the standings, that is.

Three more players are expected to make their NHL debuts this week, starting with top prospect Dylan Sikura on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Blake Hillman and goaltender Collin Delia likely to get in on Friday vs. Colorado.

This comes days after Victor Ejdsell made his big-league debut with the Blackhawks in a top-line center role, making it the fourth player debut in a span of three games.

While it doesn't seem like a huge deal in the short term, all of this is crucial for the Blackhawks in the big picture as it gives management and coaches a chance to evaluate what they have in the pipeline and who could potentially step into a larger role next season.

Perhaps more importantly, it's a chance for those players to get a taste of the NHL action and build on that going into the offseason.

"Good for the kids, good experience," Joel Quenneville said. "They get some exposure, see the pace, strength, decision-making that goes on and the time factor. That gets them help to prepare going into the following year, having a good offseason, building yourself up strength-wise and quickness-wise. It's a thrill to get a chance to play in the NHL knowing from year to year you hope there's progression in your overall development."

Sikura is the one that will certainly draw the most attention. He skated on the second line with Ejdsell and Alex DeBrincat during Wednesday's practice, and figures to have a serious chance at playing in the top-six next season; certainly top-9.

"Just try to be a sponge and try to learn from the older guys and the coaching staff," Sikura said on what he can learn over the final week and a half. "It's a little adjustment, but just get a little experience here, get my five games in and hopefully learn as much as I can and come back net year."

Hillman is a wild card on defense. He's not flashy, but he's steady defensively and might be the most NHL ready given his size (6-foot-1, 185 pounds) and the fact he spent four years in college honing his game and getting stronger.

"I think I'm just a strong defensive defenseman," he said. "I pride myself on keeping the puck out of the net. These guys expect offense, too. They expect D-men to jump into plays. I'm able to do that. I feel like I'm a good skater and I can get up in the play and make the right decisions.

"There's going to be a little bit of an adjustment period between the pace and the bigger guys, but I think Denver's really prepared me well."

Delia is an interesting case in goal. He struggled in the ECHL to start the season but still worked his way to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, where he became a key part of their playoff push before getting called up.

"I know it’s a process," Delia said. "I know things don’t come easy. Especially at this level of the pro game, it’s a lot different than college, especially for a goalie. I think it’s good, though, to have some trials and tribulations and you can enjoy these moments that much more after being there. So it’s pretty special."

It's unlikely all three will be in the fold next season, but it's still an important part of the development process to go into the summer knowing what to expect.

The remaining five games are against teams desperately battling for a playoff spot or seed: Winnipeg (twice), Colorado and St. Louis (twice). It'll be a good test for everyone to play in a game where the opposing team will throw their best effort at you, even though the results don't mean much for the Blackhawks.

Despite successful stretch, Blackhawks trying to put together full 60-minute effort

Despite successful stretch, Blackhawks trying to put together full 60-minute effort

The Blackhawks have won eight of their past 10 games, and have played themselves into a wildcard race after their playoff hopes appeared to be all but dead just a month ago. But they’re not satisfied with where their game is at.

The Blackhawks have put together this solid run without playing a full 60-minute game they’re comfortable with, and have gotten off track a little bit.

On Saturday night against Columbus, the Blackhawks had a slow start, a dominant second period and relapsed in the third period. On Thursday against Vancouver, they had another slow start, a good second period and survived the third. And on Tuesday against Boston, they weren’t very good all around.

While picking up a chunk of points is crucial at this time of year, the Blackhawks are more focused on the process and the way they’re playing. And right now they don’t like where it’s trending.

“We played the way we played the last few games,” Jonathan Toews said following Saturday’s 5-2 loss. “Obviously we didn’t have the 60, the full 60 that we wanted. There’s still some good spurts in there that allowed us to stay in the game. ... Just need to get back to having that 60-minute effort.

“When we do that, all four lines get engaged and we get contributions from all over. I think we need to be a little bit more consistent, play a complete game and things will go our way.”

The encouraging part of their successful stretch is that they’ve been finding ways to win despite not playing their best. That’s an internal belief.

Now the Blackhawks actually want to start playing their best, and not just getting away with it when they don’t. There have still been some positive developments, but putting it all together has been a challenge.

“A lot of the things are still there,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I’m not sure it’s so different. I think the results are different. We have a need to improve. ... I’m not going to get too high or too low. The result’s bad, so what? Let’s move on to the next one.

“Like I said to the players after the game, the negative is we lost two points and we missed an opportunity to close the gap in the race that we’re in. But the positive is also we were in a bad spot and turned the game. And we were right there. Let’s find a way to do it for more of the 60 minutes and we’re good enough.”

In Saturday’s case, the Blackhawks played a very good Blue Jackets team in the thick of a playoff race of their own in the Eastern Conference and that's a team that gives a lot of clubs problems with the way they possess the puck and generate scoring chances. Surviving those pushes and capitalizing when the Blackhawks have control is something they've harped ever since Colliton took over as head coach, and for the most part they've done that recently.

They just have to get back to doing it on a more consistent basis.

“Sometimes you’re going to play some teams that are coming at you with everything they got,” Toews said. “So you got to kind of expect that even if you’re playing well, there’s times you just have to manage the situation in your own end and weather the storm, as they say.

"The fact that we’re still in games, we’re giving ourselves a chance to win every single night even if we’re not playing our best hockey I think is showing how far we’ve come as a team. We know that there’s that next step that we need to take in these next 20 or so games. Points like tonight are so valuable, you can’t let them slip.”

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Four takeaways: Artemi Panarin guides Blue Jackets past Blackhawks in return to Chicago

Four takeaways: Artemi Panarin guides Blue Jackets past Blackhawks in return to Chicago

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in front of 22,196 fans — the largest crowd of the season — at the United Center on Saturday:

1. Blackhawks have no answer for Panarin-Dubois-Atkinson line

The Blue Jackets three leading scorers are Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Artemi Panarin. A reason for that is they all play on the same line. And the Blackhawks had no answer for them.

Atkinson scored a goal, Dubois had a goal and an assist, and Panarin was named the first star of the game after scoring twice and adding a primary assist. Heck, the line nearly connected for a fifth goal but Atkinson was a smidge offside and it was overturned.

"I think we gave them their chances, whether we turned it over in the D-zone for a couple of their goals or they got a bounce going on a rush a couple times too," said Connor Murphy, who was on the ice for three of the five goals. "But they're a dangerous line and you gotta be more disciplined if you want to be better against them."

2. Struggling starts continue

The Blackhawks have been struggling out of the gates as of late. They gave up three more goals, and allowed 16 scoring chances at 5-on-5 in the opening frame, according to

Fortunately, they got one of their own when Patrick Kane found the back of the net to extend his point streak to 17 games. But the Blue Jackets — Panarin, who else? — responded 17 seconds later and then again with 46 seconds remaining in the period. The Blackhawks have now been outscored 8-3 in the first period in their past three games.

"We weren’t very good in the beginning of the game," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We were sloppy with the puck and too loose defensively, and they got some pretty good players who put the puck in the net. So we made it hard on ourselves. We looked like, for a bit, that we were going to get out of the period 1-1 and then obviously that was tough to go down two like that."

3. Sergei Bobrovsky staves off second-period push

After being outscored 3-1 in the first period, the Blackhawks completely controlled the tempo in the second period. They outshot the Blue Jackets 20-9, had 11 scoring chances at 5-on-5 to their six, and scored a goal with 33.6 seconds left to give them some momentum going into intermission.

But that's all they got, thanks to a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie who stopped 39 of 41 shots for a save percentage of .951, with 33 of his 39 saves coming in the first two periods.

"He was good again tonight," Brent Seabrook said. "I think he's won the Vezina a couple times. Hell of a goalie."

4. Kane and Panarin share a moment

When the Blackhawks were in Columbus earlier this season, Kane and Panarin shared a funny moment at the end of warmups. Panarin waited for Kane to leave the ice before skating hard to the bench after Kane waved him on.

The bromance continued on Saturday night.

Kane and Panarin each took turns firing pucks at one another, with Panarin getting the last shot as Kane left ice. It was an enjoyable moment for Chicago fans between two former teammates who remain in touch.

"We have a pretty good relationship," Panarin said through a translator. "I kind of miss him a lot, so we decided to play around a little bit."

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