Blackhawks

Four takeaways: Jonathan Toews keeps winning streak alive for Blackhawks

Four takeaways: Jonathan Toews keeps winning streak alive for Blackhawks

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Jonathan Toews to the rescue

The Blackhawks didn't play their best game of the season. Not even close. But they're finding ways to win despite that. And their captain was the main reason why they earned the much-needed extra point against a Canucks team that went into the day sitting in the second wild card spot in the Western Conference was 5-0-0 in their previous five games against Chicago.

Toews was approaching the end of his second shift in overtime, but found an opening and went for it. His terrific individual effort speaks for itself, and it gave the Blackhawks their sixth consecutive win.

"I think maybe everyone else on the ice was as tired as I was," said Toews, who extended his point streak to six games and has 12 career overtime winners. "I was just trying to make one last play without it being too dangerous of a play and risking a turnover. But I was able to anticipate their D-man throwing his stick in there and was able to get a shot on net. It’s nice to see those go in." 

2. Special teams galore

For much of the first period, the Canucks looked like the better team. They generated 12 scoring chances at 5-on-5 compared to the Blackhawks' five, and eight high danger chances vs. only two allowed, according to naturalstattrick.com.

But after staving off the Canucks and killing off a 5-on-3 penalty for 1:10 along with the rest of the 50 seconds at 5-on-4, the Blackhawks were awarded a couple power plays of their own in the final four minutes. And they delivered.

With goals from Alex DeBrincat and Brandon Saad just 1:23 apart, the Blackhawks quickly went up 2-0 and went into intermission feeling good about themselves because they know they didn't have their best period. That's how important an effective power play is these days. 

"It was a weird game," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We go down 5-on-3, we kill it off, we get our own 5-on-3, we score twice. It's like, 'Wow.' We're finding ways to get it done. ... I think we feel like every time we go on the power play we're a threat. We're going to score sometimes, but the big thing is that we create momentum, create chances, keep moving it forward, keep them under pressure and we can build on it whether we put the puck in the net or not."

It's the eighth time in the past 16 games the Blackhawks have scored multiple power-play goals after doing so zero times in their first 39 games. The Blackhawks were 4-on-4 on the penalty kill before the Canucks scored on their fifth opportunity with 1:52 left in regulation.

3. Erie Otters connection strikes again

The DeBrincat and Strome chemistry is well-documented, dating back to their days with the Erie Otters in the OHL. Their on-ice connection was on full display against the Canucks.

Strome and DeBrincat connected twice, both of which were dishes from Strome and finished by DeBrincat. The second was a terrific no-look pass by Strome that summed up their night together.

"It's chemistry," Strome said. "He's usually over there. We've had a couple of close ones where we didn't really click on it, but it felt good. We felt good before the game and for whatever reason it clicked today." 

With two goals, DeBrincat matched his goal total (28) from his rookie campaign in 27 fewer games. He also stretched his point streak to seven games, which ties a season high, and become the eighth play in Blackhawks history to record at least 50 points in each of their first two NHL seasons.

4. Wild card picture

Unlike Tuesday, the Blackhawks didn't get as much help around the league on Thursday. All 15 Western Conference teams were in action, and a majority of the teams above them picked up points. 

The Avalanche earned a point by scoring a late third-period goal to force overtime in Washington before losing. The Oilers defeated the Wild in regulation. And the Blues beat the Lightning in overtime to move into the second wild card spot. The Coyotes were the only notable team that lost in regulation.

The good news? The Blackhawks have jumped Anaheim and Arizona in the standings in a span of 48 hours. Two down, four more to go.

"It’s hard not to," Toews said on standings watching. "I think that’s the fun of it, is seeing what’s going on around the league every night when our conference is as close as it is. We’ve been talking about that, too, is we’re going to focus on our job and that’s pretty much all that we can control, so that’s what we’ll worry about. But there’s no doubt you’re aware of what’s going on."

Corey Crawford acknowledges he's ready to return for Blackhawks

Corey Crawford acknowledges he's ready to return for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are back within two points of a wild card spot, and they may finally be getting their star goaltender back soon.

After joining the team on the ice for the fourth time in a week, Corey Crawford met with the media on Friday and acknowledged he's essentially ready to come back. But it's not up to him when he'll actually return.

"It's really hard to say," Crawford said. "It's not up to me. I'm healthy to play right now. Really it's whether they think I'm ready to get in the net."

The Blackhawks have won eight of their past nine games, and have gotten terrific goaltending from Collin Delia and Cam Ward. There's no urgency to rush Crawford back, but if he's ready, he's ready and he basically serves as a trade deadline acquisition on his own.

"We've been playing great," Crawford said. "I think that's a tough situation too. Obviously you don't want to come back in and [not] be at the top of my game. We're in a pretty good run right now, a pretty good stretch. It's really thinking about what game do you throw me in? I'll leave that up to Jeremy [Colliton]. Whenever they want to, I'm ready to play."

Colliton was asked about Crawford's potential timeline and said there will be discussions internally about when he will be back between the pipes for the Blackhawks. All we know is, that won't come on Saturday against Columbus. But it likely will be very soon.

"It’s good to hear he’s feeling good," Colliton said. "That’s good. We’ll discuss it in the staff and let you know.”

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

If you look at Cam Ward's stat line this season, his numbers don't look great. In fact, they aren't very good.

His 3.60 goals against average ranks dead last in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 20 starts, and .898 save percentage ranks 39th out of 47th. But there's a reason for that.

Ward is facing 9.4 high-danger chances at even strength per game and a shade above 11 in all situations, according to naturalstattrick.com. No other goaltender is seeing that many quality of shots at that rate. Couple that with the fact that the Blackhawks are giving up the second-most shots in general (35.4) and the numbers simply won't favor the goaltender, no matter who's in net. 

On Thursday against the New Jersey Devils, Ward faced 19 total high-danger shots against. He stopped all 19 of those. He also turned aside 35 of 36 shots at 5-on-5 to up his season save percentage to .922 in that area.

Where Ward's overall save percentage has taken a big hit this season is the penalty kill. He's given up 26 power-play goals on 122 shots against for a .787 save percentage. Some of that is on him. But the Blackhawks statistically have the worst penalty kill in the league with a 73.4 percent kill rate, so there's plenty of blame to go around.

In the big picture, Ward deserves more credit than he's getting for his on-ice play with Corey Crawford out and off-ice role by serving as a great mentor for Collin Delia. Quite frankly, the Blackhawks likely wouldn't be in the playoff race at this point in the season if it wasn't for him because he's bridged the gap perfectly between a two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie and 24-year-old who had only two NHL starts going into this season.

Remember how last season turned out when they didn't have a veteran like Ward?