Blackhawks

Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2019-20

Five reasons to be optimistic about Blackhawks in 2019-20

PRAGUE — The Blackhawks haven't made the playoffs in two straight seasons and haven't won a playoff round in four, but at the beginning of every season, all 31 teams feel like they have a chance.

Here are five reasons to be optimistic about the Blackhawks during the 2019-20 campaign:

1. Starting off on the same page

Training camp last season had a weird feeling to it. After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, the Blackhawks essentially rolled back the same roster. Wasn't exactly something to get excited about.

Fast forward to early November and things really felt different after Joel Quenneville was relieved of his duties and replaced by 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton. And it took a while for the veterans who had been playing one style for 10 years to adjust.

The mood around this year's training camp was filled with cautious optimism, and it’s because the roster looks very different. But also because the Blackhawks have a real chance to start off the season on the right foot, having had a full training camp under Colliton to get on the same page.

2. The defense and penalty kill should be better

Last season, the Blackhawks gave up the most high-danger chances at 5-on-5, second-most goals and had a historically bad penalty kill. There's nowhere to go but up.

The team defense got better during the final month of the season, but it still had a long way to go. If the Blackhawks can simply go from the basement to middle of the pack in the goals against department and penalty kill percentage, that should be enough to put them in a position where they're competing for a playoff spot because scoring goals won't be a problem this year.

3. The dynamic goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner

Lehner signing a one-year deal with the Blackhawks on July 1 significantly changed the outlook of this team going into the season. Crawford's injury history is well-documented and it's difficult to do better than Lehner as an insurance policy, given he was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

If both of them stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the most dependable goaltending tandems in the league. The Blackhawks will have a chance to win every night, and, perhaps more importantly, their teammates will believe it too.

4. More balance and depth

GM Stan Bowman did his best to check a lot of different boxes this summer. Let's run them down:

Blue line needs an improvement? Enter defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta, both of whom will surely see plenty of penalty kill time.

Lacking some bite? Welcome back, Andrew Shaw. And nice to meet you, Zack Smith.

Searching for scoring depth? Introducing Dominik Kubalik and Alex Nylander. 

A defensive faceoff specialist? That would be Ryan Carpenter.

Goaltending depth? It doesn't get much better than Lehner.

On paper, the roster certainly looks deeper. But now the Blackhawks have to put it together.

5. The stars are still at the top of their game

If there's one reason to believe the Blackhawks can return to playoff contention, it's that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews turned in career offensive seasons at age 30 and there's no reason to expect a drop-off.

Alex DeBrincat is also coming off a 41-goal campaign while Dylan Strome averaged nearly a point per game after being acquired by the Blackhawks. This gives the Blackhawks two legitimate scoring lines, forcing teams to play pick your poison. The question is whether the secondary scoring can do their part.

But as long as 19 and 88 stay at the top of their games, the Blackhawks will be an interesting team to watch all season long and especially down the stretch.

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What we learned about Blackhawks during five-game road trip

What we learned about Blackhawks during five-game road trip

"Every game now is a playoff game, pretty much. We've got to approach it like it's life or death."

Those were the words of Drake Caggiula and that was the mindset for the Blackhawks going into their five-game road trip in Western Canada, which was easily their most important swing of the season to date, given the circumstances. All five teams were ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, the Blackhawks were knocking on the door of a playoff spot and they had a chance to prove themselves ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline.

The Blackhawks finished the trip with a 1-4-0 record, picking up only two out of a possible 10 points. They ended the weekend sitting six points out of the final wild card spot with two games in hand but four teams to jump. It's not impossible to get back in the race, but the cards are certainly stacked against them.

So what did we learn about this team?

The easy narrative would be to say the Blackhawks shrunk in games that had playoff-type implications, but that‘s just not true. They simply failed to capitalize on their opportunities, and they had plenty of them.

In Game 1 against Winnipeg, the Blackhawks held a 2-0 lead before allowing a shorthanded goal in the second period that was the first of five unanswered for the Jets, who went on to win 5-2. The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 on the power play and were outscored (1-0), outshot (3-2) and out-chanced (4-2) during those three opportunities. That was their downfall.

In Game 2 against Edmonton, the Blackhawks held a pair of one-goal leads — 2-1 in the first period and 3-2 in the second period — but couldn’t close the deal despite the Oilers playing without the NHL's best player in Connor McDavid. Again, a huge missed opportunity that was there for the taking.

In Game 3 against Vancouver, the Blackhawks peppered a season-high 49 shots on goal on Jacob Markstrom, 25 of which came from high-danger areas, but couldn't crack the code. It was one of their most dominating performances of the season from start to finish and yet they weren't rewarded for it.

In Game 4 against Calgary, the market quickly corrected itself when the Blackhawks scored a season-high eight goals on 28 shots in an 8-4 win over the Flames. It’s the exact response they were looking for, with all four lines contributing on the scoresheet.

In Game 5 against Winnipeg, the Blackhawks scored the first goal, then fell behind 2-1 before evening things up at 2-2 in the final minute of the second period. The game was up for grabs. But the Jets scored 1:36 into the third period after a shot from the point deflected off Alex DeBrincat’s stick and in, and it turned out to be the game-winning goal.

Look, there are no moral victories at this time of year. An ugly win beats the heck out of a pretty loss.

If the power play doesn't go 0-for-14, we might be having a different discussion because it had a chance to change the complexion of each game except the last one — because, well, there were no penalties called on either side, which was the first time that's happened in an NHL game this season.

But the Blackhawks have no margin for error and they're learning that the hard way.

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3 Takeaways: Blackhawks have hole to climb out of after road trip

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USA TODAY

3 Takeaways: Blackhawks have hole to climb out of after road trip

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, but the Blackhawks lost 3-2 to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday to close out their five-game road trip. Here are three takeaways:

Bad trip

After losing in Winnipeg, the Blackhawks finished their five-game road trip with a 1-4-0 record. They began the trip last Sunday in Winnipeg with a 5-2 loss. 

Sunday's game against the Jets had flashes of good, but it was mostly strong plays from the go-to guys like Kane and Jonathan Toews. All three Jets' goals came from deflections off shots from the point. Overall, the effort and productivity paled in comparison to the lone victory of the trip, Saturday's 8-4 win over the Flames in Calgary on Saturday. 

The Blackhawks, six points out of the second wild card spot, will return home and face the New York Rangers at the United Center on Wednesday. They have 23 regular season games remaining. 

Kane keeps climbing 

With a two-point outing in Winnipeg, Kane tied former Blackhawk Steve Larmer for 87th on the NHL all-time points list with 1,012. 

"Showtime" set up Ryan Carpenter for the first goal of the game at 15:44 of the first period by backhanding a pass towards the front of the net for the crashing Carpenter to bury.

Kane scored with less than a minute remaining in the second period to tie it 2-2 off a three-way passing play with Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik. Kane has 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in his past 18 games. 

With the primary assist on Kane's goal, Toews earned his sixth point (two goals, four assists) of the road trip. 

0.0

Sunday's Blackhawks-Jets game was the only NHL contest this season to have zero penalties. This was good news for Toews, who had five minor penalties over the prior four games. 

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