Blackhawks

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

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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."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Blackhawks are now tied for the final playoff spot in the West

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Blackhawks are now tied for the final playoff spot in the West

Mark Carman and Patrick Finley join Kap on the panel.

0:00- Duke and the worst teams in the NBA breathe a big sigh of relief after Zion Williamson suffers just a Grade 1 knee sprain. After dodging this bullet, should Zion shut it down and prepare for the draft?

7:00- After seeing what happened to Zion, there have been more calls for the NCAA to pay players more than just tuition. Will it ever happen?

10:00- The Blackhawks are now tied for the final playoff spot in the West. Does Stan Bowman need to make a big trade before Monday's deadline?

12:30- Manny Machado is a San Diego Padres. Patrick Finley is huge Padres fan. He gives his reaction to the big free agent signing.

16:00- WGCI's Leon Rogers joins the guys on the panel to talk about Zion's injury, the Bears offseason plans. They also discuss the controversial finish in the Georgia-Mississippi State game when a stuffed animal decided the outcome.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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A look at how far Blackhawks have come to battle themselves into playoff picture

A look at how far Blackhawks have come to battle themselves into playoff picture

For a brief moment on Wednesday night, the Blackhawks found themselves sitting in the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference. Then the Avalanche won, bumping them out because Colorado owns a higher points percentage by having a game in hand.

But it was enough for the city of Chicago to look at the standings and go to sleep wondering: How the heck did the Blackhawks get here?

Think about this: Just 32 days ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were in the basement of the entire National Hockey League. Dead last. And now they're knocking on the door.

To put it all into perspective, let's visualize it. Here's a look at the Blackhawks' day-by-day playoff percentage change this season, courtesy of sportsclubsstats.com:

At one point, the odds were as low as 0.05 percent, which came on Dec. 16 after a 7-3 loss to San Jose. It eventually reached 1.43 percent on Jan. 6 following a 5-3 victory over Pittsburgh, but regressed back to 0.3 percent on Jan. 19 after losing their fifth straight against the New York Rangers.

Since that point, the Blackhawks' chances have increased to 19.6 percent. It's the first time the odds are above 18 percent since Nov. 7, which was the day after Jeremy Colliton took over as head coach. It's truly amazing how far they've come, and how poor the West has been that has allowed a playoff berth to be remotely possible.

To make things even more exciting in Chicago, the Blackhawks have a gigantic weekend with pair of home games against the Avalanche and Dallas Stars, both of whom occupy the two wildcard positions.

Imagine the updated graph if the Blackhawks can turn those into regulation wins...

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