Blackhawks

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

When forward Alex Nylander came to the Blackhawks last offseason in a trade that sent Henri Jokiharju — a young and promising defenseman for Chicago — to the Buffalo Sabres, Blackhawks fans and media were left scratching their heads.

Then, Nylander scored the Hawks' first goal of the season in their first game of the 2019-20 campaign against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague. 

Throughout the season the winger would show flashes of offensive brilliance that occasionally earned him ice time among the Blackhawks' top forwards like Patrick Kane. 

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But as soon as we would feel remorse for doubting the trade and his abilities, Nylander would cough up the puck or hesitate in the midst of a quality scoring chance immediately after. 

The 22-year-old is using the NHL's Return To Play program as an opportunity to show growth and dependability in his game.

Nylander was one of few Hawks that regularly participated in Phase 2's small group voluntary workouts. Teammates are already noticing his game in Phase 3's training camp, which began on Monday.

Related: Why Blackhawks' Phase 3 training camp has had an extra intensity

"Nylander, I thought, looked really good. He’s quick, he’s firing the puck and he’s a lot of fun to play with," Hawks forward Dylan Strome said after Day 2's practice.

When asked about Strome's comments on Wednesday, Alex said he's confident in how he's performed in camp, but wants to reach another level for the Blackhawks' big postseason opportunity. 

"I feel pretty good right now, been getting those skates in before in Phase 2 which was huge. I feel really good here in camp, but I want to be prepared because this is obviously going to be my first playoffs," Nylander said. "Like Stromer said, I started playing really well at the end of the season, especially with Stromer and Kane, good chemistry and stuff like that and kind of building on that and keep it going for the playoffs, it's going to be huge."

The Blackhawks will be playing the Oilers in a best-of-five play-in series for this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs on Aug. 1 in Edmonton. Before the qualifying round starts, the Hawks will take on the St. Louis Blues July 29 in an exhibition game.

"We have huge games there obviously and we just need to be as ready as possible," Nylander said. "It was nice to get to know (teammates) and play with them in Phase 2, so we got to know each other better off the ice and on the ice, so just keep carrying it on every day in training camp and working hard and we'll be ready for the playoffs."

Nylander had 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 65 games with the Hawks before the NHL paused on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blackhawks embracing underdog role, but have hands full after Vegas wins Game 1

Blackhawks embracing underdog role, but have hands full after Vegas wins Game 1

During the dynasty era, the Blackhawks were perennial Stanley Cup contenders and often times the favorites to come out of the Western Conference. But this is new territory for them.

The Blackhawks are going into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs as heavy underdogs, and they're embracing the fact nobody is giving them a real shot to win.

"It's a cool role to play," Patrick Kane said going into their first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights. "It's exciting for our team when everyone's counting you out and no one's really giving you a chance."

Echoed Kirby Dach: "I'm looking forward to this series vs. Vegas and to really show everyone who the Hawks are, that we're here to win and not just be here."

The Blackhawks flexed their muscles in the qualifying round after beating the Edmonton Oilers in four games as the No. 12 seed. But they have their hands full against the Golden Knights, and we saw why in Game 1 on Wednesday night.

The Golden Knights beat the Blackhawks 4-1 and led in shot attempts (57-50), shots on goal (33-20) and even-strength high-danger chances (7-4), according to Natural Stat Trick. The 20 shots on goal tied a season-low for the Blackhawks, who were reminded how tight-checking of a team the Golden Knights can be.

"They're a very structured, simple team, play a heavy game," Calvin de Haan said. "You've got to tip your hat sometimes, they played well as a squad. ... It's frustrating, but at the same time, I thought we played well enough that we could've won that game."

The Golden Knights are a well-oiled machine, but they didn't exactly dominate the possesion game the way they usually do. That’s not to say they weren’t the better team — because they were — but the Golden Knights won because they simply didn't give up a lot and, most importantly, prevented the Blackhawks from ever taking control of the game even when they weren't at their best.

"We expect a tight series, we expect it to be a grind, we expect to face adversity," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We did that. And we were right there. But we're going to have to find a way to win some of these games, but we've got put ourselves in that position as well. We've just got to stick with it; they did that a little bit longer than us."

The Blackhawks aren't going to get down on themselves after only one game. They showed they could make this a competitive series if they stay patient and play a conservative game.

At the same time, the Blackhawks know they've got to go fight for it because the Golden Knights will make you earn everything you get.

"We have a great opportunity here," Duncan Keith said. "The first game is under our belts. At the end of the day, not many teams are giving us a chance to win. So I think part of it is just going out and having fun, especially for younger guys — everybody, really. Enjoy the challenge. It's a great challenge, but it's also a great opportunity for our group.

"We're right there. It's one game. I don't think we're happy with the game, but we know that we can be better and I think that's a good thing too. And we're going have to be better."

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Robin Lehner, Golden Knights best Corey Crawford, Blackhawks in Game 1

Robin Lehner, Golden Knights best Corey Crawford, Blackhawks in Game 1

The Blackhawks lost 4-1 to the Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Western Conference Round One Stanley Cup Playoff series at Edmonton. 

Here are three takeaways:

Crawford vs. Lehner

Before Vegas' Game 1 starter Robin Lehner was traded to the Golden Knights ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, he and Corey Crawford were goalie partners on the Blackhawks during the 2019-20 regular season.

Crawford had an uncharacteristically tough game in Game 1 across the ice from his former partner and the Blackhawks didn't make it tough enough for Lehner, who had equipment issues in the second period.

Crawford saved 30 of 34 Vegas shots and Lehner stopped 19 of 20 from Chicago.

Crawford whiffed on a wrist shot from Shea Theodore after being screened by Paul Stastny and Adam Boqvist as the play developed, which gave Vegas a 1-0 lead at 7:22 of the second period.

Reilly Smith scored at 3:32 of the third period to make it 3-1 Golden Knights when Crawford came out on top of the crease to face the shot and allowed it to bounce over his blocker and in.

Lehner had to get a skate blade repaired twice in the second period, once early on in the frame and once late. The first time the 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist's blade went out the Hawks hit a post while he was struggling for mobility before the whistle blew.

Crawford almost always bounces back after a less than ideal performance in net. It's too bad he wasn't able to build off of Game 4 vs. the Oilers in the qualifying round when he saved 43 of 45 shots to help clinch the series for the Blackhawks in a 3-2 win.

We'll just see about that

After the Blackhawks challenged William Carrier's goal at 9:39 of the second period for being offside and lost, they were tagged with a delay of game penalty.

It looked like the Hawks made a good call by challenging the play, but then the officials made a bad one in not overturning it. 

The Hawks were tasked with killing the penalty, but Brandon Saad decided to go ahead and steal the puck in Vegas' zone and set up David Kampf for a shorthanded goal at 10:51 of the second for Kampf's first career playoff marker resulting in a possible play of the year for the Blackhawks.

Let it rip

Near the midway point of the game, the Hawks had only put seven shots on net. To be fair, they rang two off the post early on in the second... But, after being limited to just four shots on goal in the third period, the Blackhawks recorded a shot total of 20 in Game 1 and hit a total of three posts.

In facing a big goalie like Lehner, who positions himself to block as much of the net as possible, the Blackhawks need to get some traffic in front and try for deflections, which worked against the Oilers.

The low shot total is likely due to the Knights sporting an offense that can roll out all four forward lines. Chicago just had to limit Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the Oilers series, but the Knights are a more complete team with each line presenting a challenge. The Hawks may be better off taking a less conservative approach and looking to generate more scoring chances in Game 2.

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