Blackhawks

Five takeaways from Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

We're going to be a little honest. The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs could've been better.

It didn't help that the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks swept their series', wiping out those West Coast games for the last week and a half. There were also only five overtime games, four of which came in the Washington-Columbus series, compared to 18 in the first round last season.

But having said all that, we might be in for one of the most entertaining second rounds in recent memory.

Before we get to that, here are five takeaways from Round 1:

1. Artemi Panarin is a playoff performer.

We're not going to rehash whether the Blackhawks made a mistake in trading away one of the best offensive players in the league.

Instead, let's talk about how the Bread Man proved to skeptics that he's a superstar in his own right, yes, even without Patrick Kane.

It was fair to wonder whether Panarin's production would be on par with what it was in his first two seasons in Chicago, because it was also fair to do the same for Kane, who put up his best point totals in each of those two seasons as well playing alongside Panarin — 106 points in 2015-16 and 89 in 2016-17, respectively.

But the idea that Kane made Panarin was always a lazy narrative, because they both benefited from each other. In fact, Panarin set a Blue Jackets record by registering a 82 points in a single season without Kane, proving he could thrive in a role where he was "The Guy."

Panarin finished the regular season with five straight multi-point games, and opened the playoffs with seven points (two goals, five assists) in three games, including the overtime winner in Game 1. He went pointless in the final three games, but he admitted after the Blue Jackets were eliminated that a knee injury sustained early in Game 5 played a role in his effectiveness — or lack thereof — over the final two contests. That's not an excuse, just a fact.

He now has 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 17 postseason games for his career, which is nearly a point-per-game average. Panarin is a big-game player, and anybody that thinks otherwise is reading too much into the Blackhawks' first-round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators last season, where every single member struggled.

2. Do the Penguins have what it takes to three-peat?

The Penguins became the first team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Now they can become the first to make it three in a row, and there's a realistic chance of that happening after they became the sixth team in NHL history to win nine straight playoff series following their first-round win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

There's one major caveat, as there is to almost anything: Can they stay healthy?

Evgeni Malkin will miss Game 1 against the Washington Capitals with an apparent leg injury, and Carl Hagelin has already been ruled out for the first two games.

That's a huge factor in all this, because the Penguins still have three more rounds to go if they want to make history and would need to do it with their second-best player clearly not at 100 percent and probably won't be for the rest of the playoffs.

If there's a year the Capitals can finally slay the dragon having lost nine of their past 10 playoff series against Pittsburgh, it's this one. They've got home-ice advantage, they're healthy, playing well in all phases and don't have the expectations that have seemed to weigh on their minds in the past.

3. Vegas, baby.

Has there been a more fun bandwagon to be a part of than the Golden Knights' during their inaugural season? They racked up 109 points, won the Pacific Division and swept the Los Angeles Kings when many perceived that to be a coin flip.

Marc-Andre Fleury was ridiculous, recording a 0.65 goals against average, .977 save percentage and two shutouts in four games against the Kings. Vegas as a team allowed only three goals and scored seven, with each of those seven goals coming from a different player.

It's been an incredible story.

The next stop will be against the San Jose Sharks, which certainly won't be a cakewalk. Expect that to be an evenly-matched series between two teams that aren't satisfied with how far they've come already, especially the Golden Knights. They want to make history by winning a Stanley Cup in Year 1 of existence.

Would it surprise anyone at this point?

4. Boston-Toronto lives up to the hype.

The script was set up perfectly.

Five years after the Maple Leafs overcame a 3-1 series deficit but collapsed in Game 7 at TD Garden by squandering a three-goal lead in the third period, the opportunity to rewrite history was right in front of them.

The Maple Leafs again fell behind 3-1, rallied back to win two straight, had three separate one-goal leads in Game 7 at TD Garden but couldn't seal the deal. It also could've served as a healing moment for the city of Toronto, which was hit with tragedy when a van drove onto a sidewalk and killed 10 people and injured 15 others, the same way Boston came together following the marathon bombings in 2013.

Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs, destiny did not prevail and they're still seeking a first-round series win in the salary cap era.

It was as riveting a Game 7 as you'll see, and the hockey gods rewarded fans after a dull first round. But...

5. Get ready for Round 2.

Nashville vs. Winnipeg. Vegas vs. San Jose. Tampa Bay vs. Boston. Washington vs. Pittsburgh.

Close your eyes and pick a series and that could be the most entertaining of the second round. Each of them have the potential to be great.

It's the first time in NHL history the final eight teams standings compiled at least 100 points in the regular season, meaning it truly is the best of the best that's left. So enjoy it.

And good luck with your predictions, because going 0-for-4 looks more likely than 4-for-4.

Collin Delia ready to turn page after early pull: 'I'll be better next time'

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AP

Collin Delia ready to turn page after early pull: 'I'll be better next time'

Collin Delia has been a steady presence in net for the Blackhawks this season, given the circumstances. He's given his team a chance to win every night, and his sustained success in the pros earned him a three-year contract extension. 

But Monday he faced his first real adversity in the NHL.

After giving up six goals on 37 shots in Boston in his previous start, Delia allowed three goals on 10 shots against the Ottawa Senators in a high-scoring affair and was pulled just 7:55 into the game. All three goals went five-hole, and he was quick to take ownership of it.

"It's easy to be positive when everything's going good for you," Delia said after practice on Tuesday. "But you really test your character when things are tough. Definitely was tested last night. A lapse in preparation for me, so to speak. Just felt like a little bit nonchalant out there and that's not the case. You have to be on every night and you have to be sharp. I'll be better next time."

Asked whether he'd ever been yanked that quickly, Delia had to dig deep into memory bank.

"It's been awhile," Delia smiled. "It's been awhile. I think the last time was junior. It's definitely a lesson you only want to have to learn once."

Even after Delia was removed from the game, the goals still poured. The Blackhawks scored six more times while the Senators scored four, with Anders Nilsson also being pulled before the first period ended. But Delia didn't find any solace into the fact it turned into a track meet. He felt he was part of the reason why.

"No, you just feel like the catalyst that kind of led to that," Delia said. "Maybe stop those shots and it's hopefully it's a more controlled game. Not to put that much on me, but that definitely sets the tone. It's definitely a wide-open game. I got to be better."

Corey Crawford has appeared in more than 500 NHL games and has two Stanley Cups on his resumé. He'll be the first to tell you life isn't easy as a goaltender, and games like this will happen. 

"There's nothing to worry about after a game like that," Crawford said of Delia. "He's been great. He's helped us get to this point. Every goalie's going to have that game every once in a while. It wasn't the first one I'm sure, and it won't be the last one. He's fast in the net, he's got good hands, sees the puck well. I wouldn't be worried about that at all."

Jeremy Colliton has also been around Delia long enough to know he's got the mental toughness to overcome a tough night here and there, and showed zero concern about what transpired on Monday. It's part of the growing pains for a 24-year-old trying to work through the ups and downs in the NHL.

"If you don’t do it, then you’re going to have a tough time staying in the league," Colliton said on Delia putting the performance quickly behind him. "He has it in him. He’s got that maturity and mental toughness, and there’s going to be bumps in the road here. But we believe in him."

Delia is quick to turn the page on games, good or bad. He stresses not getting too high or too low. But he had to take a look at what went wrong on his three goals against before his head hit the pillow.

"Yeah, I looked at them that night," Delia said. "I just wanted some closure. The first one I just misread the play. I thought he was looking to pass down low and he kind of curved his stick at the last second and just completely caught me off guard. Bad read on my part. The second one I didn't get my knees down fast enough. My feet weren't under me so it was kind of hard for me to slide my knees down. On the third one, just tried to make one more save instead of popping out and trying to cover it, and he poked it over my glove.

"It's unfortunate but it's a new day. Sun comes up and back to work."

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What is Blackhawks' approach leading up to trade deadline?

What is Blackhawks' approach leading up to trade deadline?

It's trade deadline week. Rumors will begin to intensify around the NHL with teams finalizing which of their unrestricted free agents are available and which are not.

For example, there were 12 scouts/representatives at Monday's Blackhawks-Senators game in Chicago because Ottawa possesses two of the most coveted players on the market in Matt Duchene and Mark Stone. The Senators essentially hold all the cards. Once that big domino falls, the rest will follow, perhaps rather quickly.

But that's more for the buyers. What are the Blackhawks?

With another win on Monday, they pulled within one point of the final wild card spot and have important games on the horizon, most notably home tilts against Colorado and Dallas.

It’s unlikely the Blackhawks will be buyers. They’re not in a position yet to be giving up future draft picks or prospects for rentals, even if they find themselves sitting inside the playoff picture on trade deadline day Feb. 25. The question is, will they avoid being sellers?

The Blackhawks have three players on their current 23-man roster who are set to become UFAs this summer: Marcus Kruger, Chris Kunitz and Cam Ward.

Six will be restricted free agents: Carl Dahlstrom, Gustav Forsling, David Kampf, Slater Koekkoek, Brendan Perlini and Dylan Sikura. John Hayden, who has another year on his contract before he becomes a RFA, has drawn interest.

Some of those players could be appealing to teams trying to fill out their depth for a low price.

Artem Anisimov, whose name has been floated out there, is probably more likely to be moved in the summer when his modified no trade clause turns into nothing on July 1. He also will earn a $2 million signing bonus on July 1, meaning his remaining salary will be only $5 million but cap hit remains $4.55 million over the next two seasons. That may become an attractive type of contract to take on for a lower budget team trying to meet the floor because Anisimov can be an effective player in the right situation.

Perhaps the Blackhawks will stay the course and sell off their spare parts, gather futures and create roster spots for the young guys down the stretch. Or maybe they’ll stand pat and ride it out with this current group. The underwhelming depth of this year's Western Conference has allowed themselves to ask these questions they maybe didn’t think they’d have to answer.

"It's been an interesting year for sure," Patrick Kane said. "If you talked to a lot of us 15-20 games ago, you'd probably think we all thought we'd be out of playoffs or we'd have to go on some big runs and some crazy numbers to get ourselves in. It's pretty crazy how everything's unfolded here. But what a great position we're in — a few points behind a wild-card spot and we play some of these teams down the stretch, too. So it'll be an interesting finish to the season."

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