Blackhawks

Blackhawks can't let Lightning frustrate them

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Blackhawks can't let Lightning frustrate them

The Blackhawks weren’t thrilled but they were relieved.

The relief came from the victory, a 2-1 decision over the Tampa Bay Lightning that tied this Stanley Cup Final series at 2-2. The not-so-thrilled feeling was about the Blackhawks’ overall game, which wasn’t great. Once again, the Lightning were very good at making the Blackhawks look not so good.

“These guys are way better than anybody imagined at checking and trying to frustrate you,” Brad Richards said. “So we’re learning that mentality that it might be 2-1 games the rest of the way.”

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The Lightning, much like the Anaheim Ducks early in the Western Conference Final, are not letting the Blackhawks get into great scoring areas much. They’re not letting a lot of their shots get through. The Ducks thwarted the Blackhawks by blocking shots. The Lightning are doing it by breaking up the Blackhawks’ long pass attempts and checking very well.

So, how do you break through that stifling check and get those opportunities?

“Its all about our work ethic,” Jonathan Toews said. “I think when we're out there, winning the battles, the puck races, getting body position, I think the more we can have the puck, the better off we'll be.”

There’s one other thing they have to do: they have to be patient. That word came up a lot heading into the second-round series against the Minnesota Wild, another team that doesn’t always allow a lot of scoring chances. The Blackhawks flourished in that series — Patrick Kane led the way — because they didn’t force the issue, didn’t try to make something out of thin air. It’s something they’ll have to do against the Lightning, too.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“Chances are going to come. We need to execute when they do. At the same time we can't push for offense because that's when we make mistakes,” Brandon Saad said. “They're a good team on the rush and when we turn over the puck, we don't want to feed into their rush game. We want to stay patient, believe in our process and our system.”

The Blackhawks had to work harder to break through the Ducks’ blocks. If they want to win another Cup, they’ll have to do the same with the Lightning’s checking.

“Everybody talks about how offensive they are, but that’s the tightest checking team we’ve played all year," Richards said. "They’re not only tight-checking, they’re quick. They have good sticks and get in your way. They keep pressuring and keep coming. I think we got caught up thinking it would be run and gun, and if we do that, we just feed them. We’ve got to be more patient than them.”

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

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AP

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

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USA TODAY

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."