Blackhawks, Lightning fight fatigue, pain for chance 'to do something great'


Blackhawks, Lightning fight fatigue, pain for chance 'to do something great'

It’s been a long trek from training camp to this point for the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Each team has played more than 100 games in the trek to the Stanley Cup Final. Each team has gone through at least one seven-game series. Each team has players who are probably fighting some fatigue, some little injuries and perhaps even some big injuries.

But there’s no lamenting the fatigue, no complaining about the pain. When you get to this point, knowing the prize that you could get in a matter of days now, you just deal with it.

“This is, at the most, three games left here to do something great,” Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “It's pretty easy to get motivated and kind of forget about that stuff, just go out there and live in the moment, just think about the next shift, try not to look too far ahead, just take it a period at a time, give everything you have in that period, then see what happens.”

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You’re never surprised to hear a list of injuries once teams have completed their playoff runs. Most teams remain mum on any pain and suffering while they’re playing – there have been a few exceptions, from Ben Bishop missing Game 4 (and maybe Game 5) with an undisclosed injury to Bryan Bickell missing Games 1 and 2 with vertigo. Others, you suspect are injured – Tyler Johnson has taken few face-offs in recent games but said he’s fine.

But there’s no doubt: if they can grit their teeth and bear it, for a shot at the Stanley Cup, players are willing to fight through the fatigue or aches. It’s that time of the year when the mind has to trick the body into feeling well, even if it isn’t.

“At this point, it’s a mental block,” Andrew Desjardins said. “We’ve had a little bit of time here, too. Everybody knows that situation, where there are obviously things, but you’re looking toward what you’re working for and that’s what you have to do.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said the ups and downs of fighting the grind at this juncture “can be unpredictable.”

“There are definitely some swings, some good days and bad days,” he said. “Some days, you can tell going into the game, you might not have as much energy as you do other nights. Some days in practice we look like we’re not up to that pace. But some days you feel great and your team looks like it feels great and plays well.”

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Look back at the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup run and who played through what: Andrew Shaw suffered a broken rib against the Detroit Red Wings, then took a puck to the face in Game 6 against the Boston Bruins. Bickell played that Final with a knee injury. Michal Handzus had several injuries, including one to his wrist.

“It’s pretty much the same for everyone,” Marcus Kruger said. “Everyone has bruises and bumps but it’s nothing you think about now. It’s the best-of-three here and every game you’re going to find a way to get through it.”

The Blackhawks and Lightning have gotten to this point thanks mainly to their talent. Mental toughness doesn’t hurt, either. They’ve probably had some weary moments during these playoffs – please see the Blackhawks’ multi-overtime games – and they’ve likely played through pain. It may seem crazy to us bystanders but, for the Cup, they’ll play through just about anything.

“It’s a grind, it’s a challenge. It’s why they say it’s the hardest trophy in the world to win because it’s so demanding and that’s why you have to commend the players, the way they prepare and push each other and one another,” Quenneville said. “These guys find ways.”

Four takeaways: Brandon Saad breaks out in strong bounce-back performance by Blackhawks

Four takeaways: Brandon Saad breaks out in strong bounce-back performance by Blackhawks

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks at the United Center on Tuesday:

1. Brandon Saad's breakout game

After turning in one of his best efforts of the season on Sunday against Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks rewarded Saad with a promotion to the top-six again. And he took advantage of that opportunity.

In the first period alone, Saad recorded four shots on goal, scored his first of the season on the power play, drew a penalty and had a takeaway in 7:42 of ice time, which led all forwards. He finished with nine shot attempts (a season-high seven on goal) and 18:56 of ice time.

On his power-play goal, Saad battled for position in front of the net, called for the puck and scored on his second effort. He did all the right things and got rewarded, including on the empty-netter that sealed the victory.

"I've had some chances, especially as of late," Saad said. "But it's definitely nice for them to get in and get a win on top of that."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "He was excellent tonight. ... I thought he had great speed all over the ice, had the puck way more. We’re happy for him. Big factor in the win."

2. Erik Gustafsson's slap-pass becoming a thing

For the second time this season, Gustafsson contributed to a game-winning goal that involved a fake shot and slap-pass from the point. Patrick Kane was the recipient of the cross-ice pass and buried home the one-timer from the right faceoff circle

"I can’t score by myself, so it’s better to pass it," Gustafsson joked. "No, I know Kaner is out there. He’s always getting open when someone else has the puck so it’s easy to find him and there was one guy in front of me so I wanted to pass it."

3. Blackhawks cut down on high-danger chances

On Sunday against Tampa Bay, the Blackhawks allowed 25 high-danger chances at even strength. It put them at the very bottom of the league for most on average per game, ironically falling below Anaheim.

Through two periods on Tuesday, the Blackhawks allowed zero and only five at 5-on-5 for the entire game. Certainly a 180 from two nights ago, and an area they will continue to build upon.

"We just took away those quality chances," said Corey Crawford, who made 24 saves and picked up his first win at home since Dec. 17, 2017. "I don't think they really had too many where they had time in front of the net to really think about where they wanted to shoot and our guys were on the right away in the middle of the ice and that'll give you a great chance to win a hockey game."

4. Special teams battle

There were a total of 20 penalty minutes (10 for Anaheim, 10 for Chicago), which meant lots of power play opportunities and not as much even-strength time.

The Blackhawks had four of them in the first period, and converted on the second try when Saad scored his first of the season. The penalty killed went 4-for-4, allowing a combined eight combined shots on goal but limiting the quality chances.

Blackhawks assign Anton Forsberg to Rockford after clearing waivers

Blackhawks assign Anton Forsberg to Rockford after clearing waivers

Anton Forsberg cleared waivers on Tuesday morning and was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League.

That's good news for the Blackhawks organizational depth chart, with Forsberg as the No. 3 in goal. But it also complicates things in Rockford, where Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen have been sharing the duties.

Delia is 3-1-0 with a 3.26 goals against average and .910 save percentage while Lankinen is 0-1-1 with a 3.39 GAA and .825 save percentage. Perhaps the most likely scenario is Lankinen gets sent to the ECHL with the Indy Fuel while Delia and Forsberg split the load in Rockford.

It's certainly a good problem to have, but it's still unclear how that dynamic will play out.

"We haven’t talked about that," coach Joel Quenneville said. "But we expect [Forsberg] to play."

Luke Johnson recalled

With a spot opening up on the 23-man roster, Johnson is being brought back up after he was squeezed out by Corey Crawford's return. He had a goal and an assist in two games with Rockford.

Brandon Saad returns to top-six role

After turning in arguably his best performance of the season on Sunday, Saad is back playing on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane. He had seven shot attempts (three on goal) against Tampa Bay and led the team in 5-on-5 possession numbers.

"[Saad] is coming off a game where we liked what we saw," Quenneville said. "Playing with Kaner can help him get going."

Nick Schmaltz to play right side for first time in NHL career

Eight games into the season and Schmaltz has spent time at both center and left wing. Now he'll get a look on the right side with Alexandre Fortin on the left and David Kampf centering the third line.

Part of the reason for Schmaltz’s move to the right side was because Quenneville said they like Fortin on the left. It's not unfamiliar territory for Schmaltz, but could take some time getting used to.

"I played a little while back, not sure when," Schmaltz said "Just a little bit different. Catching pucks on your forehand now instead of your backhand. It's not a huge adjustment, just play with speed and compete hard and hopefully the skill on our line will take over."