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Blackhawks' five-game win streak ends in loss to Talbot, Oilers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks' five-game win streak ends in loss to Talbot, Oilers

It would be easy to look at the outcome, the 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, and assume the Blackhawks were the latest team to fall prey to the post-bye-week-lack-of-vigor factor.

But that wasn’t the case. The Blackhawks had the energy. They had the shots. They had the opportunities. They gave up little on the other end. It was, as Jonathan Toews called it, one that may have gone the Blackhawks’ way if they had had a “little more puck luck.”

Cam Talbot stopped 38 of 39 shots and Milan Lucic’s third-period goal proved to be the winner as the Edmonton Oilers beat the Blackhawks in the latter’s return to the United Center. The Blackhawks, who had a five-game winning streak prior to their bye week, now trail the Minnesota Wild by nine points. The Wild beat the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Saturday night.

The Blackhawks had great energy early, outshooting the Oilers 12-4. But from the start Talbot was sharp, denying the Blackhawks on one chance after another. Throw in two iron shots (Marian Hossa off the crossbar and Artemi Panarin off the post) and the Blackhawks just couldn’t manage much against Talbot.

The Oilers didn’t fare much better until after Ryan Hartman got into a fight with Eric Gryba – Gryba had hit Tanner Kero along the boards moments before that. Hartman was hit with an instigator, five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. The Blackhawks missed having Hartman that period and the Oilers got the go-ahead goal on the ensuing power play. Matt Benning’s shot hit Corey Crawford, went off Trevor van Riemsdyk and past Crawford for a 1-0 lead.

Coach Joel Quenneville had no problem with Hartman’s fight.

“He’s a competitive guy. We like him to have that abrasiveness and unpredictability so there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “We like how he competes and what he brings us.”

Talbot finally gave one up late in the third period when Richard Panik scored his 15th of the season, late in the third period. The Blackhawks couldn’t do much more, however, with Connor McDavid getting the empty-net goal with 27 seconds remaining in regulation.

For Toews, there was no blaming the Blackhawks’ six-day break for this one.

“I can’t speak for what other teams felt like coming off the break. But we worked pretty hard today,” Toews said. “There’s no doubt, energy-wise, it’s hard. You have to find ways to keep your shifts short, play smart. When you’re off the ice for five days, sometimes you get a little rust you have to work out. For the most part we moved he puck well, we checked well, we kept that team away from doing what they wanted to do. We had the puck for the majority of the night.”

Quenneville liked the overall game and also said there was no bye-week issues. Still he thought the Blackhawks’ shot selection, especially around the net, could have been better.

“Whether it wasn’t the feel of it or didn’t sense the timing of it, anticipating the puck where it was, we missed a lot of opportunities that could’ve been high-quality chances that didn’t even get developed. And we did have some good chances,” he said. “Whether we didn’t elevate it or didn’t have the traffic or the patience or even the shot, our shots tonight were off.”

The Blackhawks were down 1-0 until midway through the second period when Lucic’s goal eluded Crawford. The Blackhawks’ goaltender wasn’t happy with that one.

“Just couldn’t find the net there and gave up a bad one. But it kind of had some momentum there at the end, too, and had some chances,” Crawford said. “Yeah, we played a good game. We created a lot and it was a lot better, I guess, than everyone thought it was going to be for us. You can’t ask for more than that."

Well, the Blackhawks could’ve used a victory because, despite all their great work on the road, they’re still trailing the Wild by a healthy margin. That, and they played well enough to have a better fate on Saturday night.

“We’re pretty happy with the effort, the 60-minute effort,” Toews said. “You’re always disappointed when you don’t get the result.”

Is Blackhawks' Round One strategy playing into Vegas Golden Knights' hands?

Is Blackhawks' Round One strategy playing into Vegas Golden Knights' hands?

The Blackhawks knew they'd have to elevate their game for Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights, who won the No. 1 seed from the West for the first round in the round robin.

The Hawks upset of the West's No. 5 seeded Oilers and their top-ranked power play and second-place penalty kill during the regular season — not to mention Leon Draisailt and Connor McDavid — was no small feat.

Chicago head coach Jeremy Colliton and the Blackhawks know they're facing a more complete team — capable of rolling four lines — in the Golden Knights, as illustrated by Tuesday's 4-1 Game 1 decision over the Hawks.

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Instead of focusing on just shutting down two players like they did against Edmonton, the Blackhawks are tasked with shutting down every line against Vegas. 

The Hawks' tight-checking strategy may have played right into the Knights' hands in Game 1 as Chicago's forwards were so focused on their defensive responsibilities that they failed to generate much offense, recording a measly 20 shots on goal Tuesday night.

Related: Robin Lehner got the best of 'reverse psychology' with Blackhawks familiarity in Game 1

"I think we did a better job controlling the puck in the offensive zone in the second period and on," Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith said after Tuesday's game. "They're a rush team and we don't want to get into a track meet with them so once we can get them to stop in the D zone, we control the game a little bit more."

If Vegas is scared of Chicago's rush, the Hawks need to use it more. They can avoid a track meet, but how about a few races?

Colliton, 35, deserves beyond the benefit of the doubt in how he had the Blackhawks prepared for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and in how they utilized a system that beat a good team as No. 12 to No. 5 underdogs at the opposition's home ice for his first postseason win in his second year as an NHL head coach. But, he needs to find a way to encourage the Hawks to play loose enough while limiting the Knights' chances in Game 2 that they can generate some of their own.

"We expect a tight series, we expect it to be a grind, we expect to face adversity," Colliton said after the loss in Game 1. "We did that, and we were right there. But we're going to have to find a way to win some of these games (and) we got to put ourselves in that position as well. Again, we just have to stick with it and they did it a little bit longer than us, and that's the message."

To Colliton's credit, Corey Crawford gave up two soft goals that he'd normally have, so the Hawks may have been able to squeak out a victory with their tight, conservative style on Tuesday.

"They’re a good team, they’re going to make you work for what you get," Colliton said. "But if you stick with it long enough and put pressure on the puck, we forced our turnovers, we got our chances. I thought we could’ve created even more if we were a little cleaner early on, especially in the first period. I thought there was more there for us. So we’ve just got to believe in that."

A way the Hawks can generate more in Game 2 on Thursday is by the forwards getting the puck to the D in the offensive zone, creating traffic in front of the net and getting shots off from the point, which played a big role in eliminating the Oilers in the play-in series.

"Yeah, we seemed to have a bit of success there last series. For whatever reason first game here it didn't happen as much," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said following Game 1. "Part of it is just keeping the game simple. Being able to get it low to high and then get the shot through. But every game's different."

Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, who made a beautiful play in Vegas' zone to steal the puck and feed David Kampf for the lone Hawks' goal in Game 1, knows there's more the Hawks can do to score some goals against the Knights.

"We had a lot of one-and-dones," Saad said after Tuesday's loss. "The biggest thing is getting out of our zone clean, playing hockey in their end. We had some shifts too where we pinned them in, we didn't get clean pucks to the net... For us, we just want to get as quick out of our zone as possible. When we get stuck in there, we're not going to get anything there."

The good and bad of Blackhawks' Game 1 loss to Vegas Golden Knights

The good and bad of Blackhawks' Game 1 loss to Vegas Golden Knights

As the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks knew going into their first-round matchup against the No. 1 seed Vegas Golden Knights that it would be an uphill battle. 

The Blackhawks dropped Game 1 on Tuesday night in a tight-checking game, which wasn’t what we’re used to seeing when these two teams collide. The final score (4-1) and shots on goal (34-20) made it seem like a more lopsided effort than it actually was, but that's not to say the Blackhawks were the better team.

The Golden Knights deserved to win, but there were some positives for the Blackhawks. There were also negatives.

Let's break down the good and bad from Game 1:

Good: Three of the Blackhawks four lines outchanced the Golden Knights during 5-on-5 action for a combined scoring chance differential of plus-5, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Bad: The one line that didn’t was Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane, which got outchanced 10-3.

Good: The Blackhawks gave up seven high-danger chances at even strength against a Vegas team that generated 10.8 per game during the regular season.

Bad: The Blackhawks had only four high-danger chances of their own, which was their third-fewest total of the season.

Good: The Golden Knights, who rank No. 2 in even-strength shot attempts from the slot off the rush with 7.53, were held to only four rush chances, according to Sportlogiq.

Bad: The Blackhawks, who rank No. 3 in even-strength shot attempts from the slot off the rush with 7.40, had only three rush chances of their own. 

Good: The Golden Knights had 6:26 of offensive zone possession time. For reference, the Oilers had 8:49 against the Blackhawks in Game 4.

Bad: The Blackhawks were held to only 5:25 of offensive zone possession time.

Good: The Blackhawks generated nine scoring chances and four high-danger chances during 4:06 of power-play time.

Bad: Only four of their 12 shot attempts hit the net, and none of them went in.

Good: The Blackhawks lost but hung with the Golden Knights for the majority of the game — two of the four goals allowed by Corey Crawford were ones he normally stops.

Bad: The Golden Knights won despite not playing their best.

The conclusion is, the Blackhawks didn't play bad enough to lose. But they didn't play well enough to win, either. The Golden Knights simply stuck to their defensive structure and never gave the Blackhawks an opportunity to take control of the game.

If the Blackhawks want to make this a competitive series, they have to go out and take it. Because this Golden Knights team isn't going to make the same defensive mistakes that the Edmonton Oilers made in the qualifying round that allowed the Blackhawks to make them pay.

"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 have to find way to win some of these games, but we’re going to have to put ourselves in that position as well. We just have to stick with it; they did it a little bit longer than us. That’s the message."

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