Blackhawks

Blackhawks will take OT victory but need sharper starts again

Blackhawks will take OT victory but need sharper starts again

Patrick Sharp’s backhand shot slipped past Pekka Rinne late in regulation. The Blackhawks’ push, which started midway through the third period, finally yielded them something and led to a 2-1 overtime victory.

The Blackhawks will take it, but it was the second consecutive game in which it took them two-plus periods and a deficit to get anything going. When the Blackhawks were scoring plenty in the first few games this season they were playing with energy and tenacity from the start and didn’t let up. As they continue through a tough stretch, they want to get back to that.

“They controlled a lot of the battle areas, came up with more loose pucks, we didn’t pressure it enough,” coach Joel Quenneville said of the first two periods against the Nashville Predators. “All of a sudden we had some zone time [in the third], got some momentum off that, scored the big goal by Sharpy. Certainly the last 15 minutes of the game, including overtime, that’s what we need to play like more often.”

Sure, Nick Schmaltz’s absence hasn’t helped. The Blackhawks have missed him, and they hope he’s back on Wednesday. But Schmaltz or no Schmaltz there’s enough firepower on this team to generate offense. So what gives? On Saturday there may have been early frustration against a Predators team that’s done that to them a few times.

“I think it was just tough sledding out there,” Sharp said. “That was a well-coached team, pretty disciplined through the neutral zone. I don’t think we exited the zone with possession too many times throughout the whole game so we had to grind it out a little bit I thought in the third period Joel mixed the lines up and got a little offensive zone time. Got a couple shots on net and able to sneak one in there. I still think we’re capable of scoring multiple goals a game. We can score a lot. That’s never a problem.”

It’s ultimately about creating opportunities or taking advantage of those given to you. Speaking of the latter the Blackhawks’ power play, or lack thereof, doesn’t help. In their best seasons the Blackhawks didn’t sweat power-play issues much because their 5-on-5 scoring was strong. When that 5-on-5 production dries up, however, the power play’s issues are magnified. They came up empty in six more power-play opportunities on Saturday night and are now 4 for 27 on the season.

In the Blackhawks’ last two home games they haven’t been offensively sharp out of the gate. It’s taken them quite a while to get going. On Saturday it worked out well but it’s not a habit they want to repeat often.

“We can’t be overly excited with this short little two-gamer at home,” Quenneville said. “I think that you get Schmaltzy back and you get some consistent lines and more predictable line mates. Maybe if we get that it’ll help push one another in the right way and get more consistency and speed in our game.”

Chris Kunitz on in-season coaching change experience with Penguins that led to Stanley Cup

kunitz_usa_today.jpg
USA TODAY

Chris Kunitz on in-season coaching change experience with Penguins that led to Stanley Cup

In-season coaching changes are hard to predict in the NHL. There were zero of them last season, which was a rarity. This year, there have already been two so far (Joel Quenneville and John Stevens) and they're usually done for a similar reason: the group is underperforming and teams want to salvage whatever is left of the season.

Chris Kunitz was part of a mid-season coaching change as an alternate captain with Pittsburgh in 2015-16 when Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 after the Penguins went 6-6-3 following a 9-4-0 start. It was probably time for a new voice there anyways, but the Penguins lost four straight games in regulation to start Sullivan’s tenure as coach. Things didn’t look great.

But it wasn’t because players weren’t responding. It was more-so the challenge of getting acclimated to a new system and unlearning old habits on the fly. That’s what the Blackhawks are going through right now with Jeremy Colliton.

“Some of the guys have played a different system and haven't played anything like this,” Kunitz said. “Being around the league, I've played in a system like this, I feel comfortable with the changes on the fly. But for some guys, it's not that natural instinct to do something different than they've been doing for 8-10 years."

In many ways, Sullivan and Colliton have a similar coaching style: play with pace, be aggressive on the forecheck, quick and clean zone exits. It helps having a guy like Kunitz in the locker room to help with that transition, for both the younger players and veterans.

Once the Penguins did get accustomed to the new system, they never looked back. They snapped that four-game losing streak on Dec. 21 and didn't lose back-to-back games in regulation the rest of the season. It was exactly what they needed. They went into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams — winning 13 of their final 14 games — and eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup, the first of their back-to-back.

Obviously, the 2018-19 Blackhawks are not the 2015-16 Penguins. But it provides a glimpse into how it takes time to adjust to a different system mid-season while also offering hope that it's not too late for a struggling team going through a coaching change to turn around their season.

"Any time there's something changing, guys want that 'why' or 'how does this affect what's going on out there?' Kunitz said. "It's easier if we talk through it as a group or with coaches to better understand why we're doing it and how we're trying to accomplish it and where the puck is supposed to be at certain times. Whenever we can just have that natural instinct to transition from watching it to doing it on the ice, that's when we'll have more success."

After going winless (0-2-1) in Colliton's first three games as an NHL head coach, the Blackhawks got back in the win column with a 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night. They had been making progress, but weren't seeing the end result reflect that.

The Blackhawks got reinforcement that what they're doing is working so far, as long as they stick with it. If they continue to do that, the points will follow. And that's all they can control right now.

"It's starting to believe in yourself," Kunitz said. "... It's a process of understanding the system and getting to the right level of comfort with each other, but also going out there and outworking the other team. That's what it boils down to.

"With changing the systems, it's more learning and trying to educate yourself. Go out and practice, coach says keep it clean, have good passes and the results will come. When we go out there and we keep it clean in the D-zone, when we've come up the ice we've had good things, we've had success. Probably haven't scored as many goals as we should have, but in the end we have to work harder in our D-zone and when we do all that and put a complete game together, I know the end result will be there."

Four takeaways: Blackhawks blank Blues to end losing skid, give Jeremy Colliton first win

seabrook_ap.jpg
AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks blank Blues to end losing skid, give Jeremy Colliton first win

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 1-0 win over the St. Louis Blues at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Jeremy Colliton's first NHL win

For the first time since Oct. 25, the Blackhawks are back in the win column. A weight has been lifted off their shoulders after going winless in their previous eight games (0-6-2).

But it was an extra special night for the Blackhawks, who helped Colliton earn his first victory as an NHL head coach and celebrated by giving him the game puck.

"I’m just here to help them," Colliton said. "So it's kind of awkward, actually. But I do appreciate the gesture and for me, it’s just, hopefully we can get some momentum going and build on it."

2. Corey Crawford puts up a goose egg

Going into the game, Crawford had a 3.07 goals against average and .901 save percentage, which are below average numbers. But he certainly hasn't played that way. He was often the Blackhawks' best player during their losing streak and has deserved better fate than he's gotten.

By stopping all 28 shots he faced, Crawford earned his first shutout since Nov. 4, 2017 when he made 24 saves in a 2-0 win over the Minnesota Wild.

"It's nice," Crawford said. "That's the goal, not let any in. But I thought everyone contributed to that. ... We've been waiting a while, kind of forgot what it was like to win there for a bit."

3. Power play breaks through

Finally. After an 0-for-10 drought, the Blackhawks scored a power play goal on their first try of the night and didn't need much time to do it.

Just 35 seconds into a Vladimir Tarasenko hooking penalty, Brent Seabrook cashed in after his shot trickled past Jake Allen and went in off a Blues defenseman's skate to make it 1-0 at 4:05 of the second period. It was the only goal of the game, proving to be the game-winner. 

The Blackhawks finished 1-for-2 in that department against a Blues team that came into the game with a 27.6 percent success rate, which ranked fifth in the NHL.

"It's a good feeling," Seabrook said. "It was nice to hear some music when they came in here after the game tonight. The boys are all fired up. The way we played going into the second period, being able to score a goal, hold onto the lead I think the way everybody played. Everybody stuck with it. Everybody stuck with the game plan. Everybody worked hard. It was a real team effort. ... It took all 20 guys out there tonight to get the job done."

4. Playing the right way leads to results

For six periods in a row, the Blackhawks have been either the better team or it was evenly matched. Giving up two power-play goals in 66 seconds to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday was basically the difference in that game and special teams played a major role in this one as well. 

Colliton felt like the Blackhawks were, overall, trending in the right direction despite not getting the end results over the previous three games. He got both against the Blues, which was fitting considering the losing streak started vs. St. Louis.

"That was the part of the package that was missing," Colliton said. "Happy for the guys to get rewarded. It’s not a lot of fun to see the results add up. Very happy for the group, they battled really hard, especially in the third when the game was on the line. We found a way to get some pucks out and win some 50-50s and got a couple saves and hopefully that relieves a little bit of the tension in the team and they can play a little more free. Because we’ve been talking about it, but it’s easier said than done."