Artemi Panarin returns to lineup as Blackhawks host Ducks


Artemi Panarin returns to lineup as Blackhawks host Ducks

After missing the last two games with an illness, Artemi Panarin will return to the lineup when the Blackhawks host the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night.

During his absence, the Blackhawks were shut out by the San Jose Sharks at home, and followed that up with a 4-2 loss against their division rival Dallas Stars, going more than five periods without scoring a goal.

It was the first time the Blackhawks lost back-to-back home games all season, and they're looking to get back on track with Panarin's return.

"He's been an important player for us right from the outset there, but he's dangerous," Coach Joel Quenneville said on what Panarin brings to the table after the team's optional morning skate. "He gives that line another threat and our offense was a little light the last two games. He's dangerous offensively.

"That line's been consistent and we'll give him some credit for us missing him a little bit but we need to be better than we were across the board."

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Another player that may give the Blackhawks some additional jump is Jiri Sekac, who will clash against his former team for the first time since being traded by the Ducks for Ryan Garbutt in January.

It's the second time Sekac has been in this position in the past year after the Montreal Canadiens traded him to Anaheim before last year's trade deadline.

But this time, he had an idea that change could be coming.

"To be honest, I thought it could've happened," Sekac said. "The Ducks needed some kind of wake-up call and there were trades going around. Anybody could've gotten traded at that time. I was waiting for anything and when it actually happened, you just go with it. You just accept it and move on."

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While it helps that Sekac has been in this situation before, it doesn't change the motive of playing against the team that didn't believe in your abilities.

"Last year when I got traded, we actually played the Canadiens a week later, so I've already been in this situation," Sekac said. "It's always fun to play against a team like that. This gives you a little extra push kind of just to prove they were wrong, so that's what I'm going to try and do."

The trade has arguably benefited both sides, with Garbutt scoring three goals, including two game-winners, in his first eight games with the Ducks while Sekac joined a Blackhawks team that suits his style of play.

"This team is very skilled and (an) offensively-minded team," Sekac said. "Everybody would love to play on a team like this."

Quenneville also indicated that there will be "a couple adjustments" on both the forward lines and defensive pairings, starting with Michal Rozsival and recently-recalled Viktor Svedberg, both of whom will draw into the lineup. It appears Erik Gustafsson will be a healthy scratch.

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers


Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the East Coast Hockey League to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen


Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."