Blackhawks

What's the ceiling for the surging Blackhawks?

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USA TODAY

What's the ceiling for the surging Blackhawks?

It took a while, but the Blackhawks are finally playing their best hockey of the season. And fortunately because of a subpar Western Conference, playoff talks are actually realistic in Chicago.

After a 4-3 overtime victory on Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, the Blackhawks’ winning streak was extended to six games. They hadn’t won more than three in a row all season before this stretch. And yet they're only two points out of the final ward card spot despite their points percentage (.482) ranking fourth-worst.

The most notable reason why they're having so much success is the power play, which is converting at an astonishing 39.1 percent clip since Dec. 18. But their 5-on-5 success has been strong, too.

The Blackhawks have a plus-6 goal goal differential at 5-on-5 during their six-game winning streak and a PDO — a metric that combines on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage to measure luck factor — of 104.8, which ranks second-best since Jan. 20, according to naturalstattrick.com. In their previous 49 games, they had a minus-21 differential and PDO of 99.4 (the mean is usually 100).

Most importantly, they're finding ways to win when they don't play their best. Like Thursday.

"It's part of why we're winning games right now," Jonathan Toews said following the win. "Whether we're on our A game or not, tonight we had spurts where we were making mistakes and I think collectively we know we could be better in those areas, as far as managing the puck and managing our shifts and playing with a bit more energy if we keep them short. The fact that we can hang in there — it's unfortunate to give up a late goal, but we're finding ways to win right now even if we're not playing our best hockey."

Why is that?

"It just shows that everyone’s raising their game, everyone’s playing better hockey and we’re all committed to doing the right thing and at least being on the same page no matter what the situation is," Toews said. "When, across the board, we’re getting consistent efforts, we’re getting good starts, we’re getting smart changes, four lines rolling, everyone playing with energy, conserving their energy by not extending themselves, things just fall into place.

"Our power play’s confident right now, we know that we’re not taking anything for granted. You gotta go out there and work hard and out-work the PK. Same goes with our 5-on-5 play. When you work hard and you stick to your team game and all five guys know what each other is doing out there, it’s just easier to play the game. You rely on your teammates and it’s much more fun to play out there when you have purpose and you’re getting rewarded for it, too."

Before Thursday's game, Toews said the Blackhawks haven't reached their ceiling yet. Not even close.

So what is the ceiling for this team? The answer, and part of what makes this stretch fun: nobody knows, including their head coach.

"I don't know,” Jeremy Colliton admitted. “But I agree, we're not there yet. There's many things we can do better, but I think that's every team. The teams that get to play when it's the most fun, they continue to improve as the year goes on, and I think we've had a good stretch where we have taken some steps forward. Today was a step back, but in a way it wasn't cause we won. That's what teams who get to move on, they find ways to do that and that's a good sign."

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Is Dylan Sikura on the outside looking in with Blackhawks?

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USA Today

Is Dylan Sikura on the outside looking in with Blackhawks?

The Blackhawks divided practice into two groups on Thursday and Friday. One of them was filled with NHL players. The other was loaded with prospects.

Dylan Sikura found himself in the first group with the prospects, and it's hard not to read into what that could mean about his standing with the team as the coaching staff looks to finalize its 23-man roster over the next two weeks.

Once thought of as a highly-touted prospect coming out of college, Sikura put up strong numbers in the AHL last season but his offensive production hasn't translated to the NHL level.

Part of that is because he was put in favorable situations in college and Rockford, where he played first-line minutes and was the go-to guy on the top power play unit. It was difficult for him to get those same opportunities in Chicago when players like Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are viewed as the heavy lifters on offense.

When the Blackhawks traded Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins in June for defenseman Olli Maatta, GM Stan Bowman felt he was able to pull the trigger on that trade because he was confident that there were players in-house ready for bigger roles and that could fill Kahun's skates. Bowman singled out Sikura specifically.

“Looking at some of our young players that are getting ready to take on a bigger role, you can look at guys like Dylan Sikura,” Bowman said at the time. “He didn't have the offensive success at the NHL level but I liked the way he played when he was with us last year in Chicago. It felt like his game was real effective other than the production part. Then when he was in Rockford I really liked the way he was able to score down there. So I think he's not far from being a guy and he's got sort of a similar skill set that Dominik has.”

Bowman is right. When Sikura was on the ice at 5-on-5 last season, the Blackhawks controlled 55.4 percent of the shot attempts and 53.2 percent of the scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. When he wasn't on the ice, those numbers dropped to 47.7 and 45.5, respectively. 

But through 38 career games with the Blackhawks, Sikura is still looking for his first career NHL goal and he knows it's a results-oriented business.

“It's obviously something you think about every now and then and it's tough but I thought there was spurts last year where I was really good," Sikura said. "And even though I wasn't scoring I was still playing and put in situations playing with top guys, so I think all that is going to help me in the long run. Coach always says you end up getting rewarded for what you deserve and I think if I continue to work away from the puck and work on that side of the game then the offense will come."

Sikura survived the first wave of cuts, which consisted of six players. But the next round is expected to be bigger and should come this weekend with the IceHogs training camp beginning Sunday.

Whether Sikura is part of that remains to be seen, but with a crowded forward group already and limited spots available, he might have to wait for his chance again mid-season.

“You always got to be ready, if it's going to be here to start the season or down there, you always got to be ready to go,” Sikura said. “You saw last year, I think when you're down there sometimes you don't think you're coming up then next day you get a call, so you always got to be ready and working on your game. It's a little bit of different hockey down there, but you've got to do the little things and I think my game kind of changes down there a little, but to stick up here I've got to do the little things and hopefully it all works out."

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Blackhawks make first wave of roster cuts in 2019 training camp

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Detroit Red Wings

Blackhawks make first wave of roster cuts in 2019 training camp

After starting training camp with 55 players, the Blackhawks made their first wave of roster cuts on Friday and they weren't very surprising.

Forwards Nathan Noel, Graham Knott, Tyler Sikura, Tim Soderlund, Dylan McLaughlin, Kris Versteeg and defensemen Chad Krys, Jack Ramsey and Jake Ryczek were re-assigned to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League. Goaltender Alexis Gravel was also returned to his junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

The Blackhawks training camp roster now sits at 45 players: 26 forwards, 14 defensemen and five goaltenders.

The IceHogs kick off their training camp on Sunday, so expect the Blackhawks to make more roster moves before then. Saturday's preseason game against the Boston Bruins could serve as the final opportunity for some of the bubble players to make an impression before the organization makes their next round of cuts.

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