Blackhawks

Blackhawks looking to 'dig deep' on the road

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Blackhawks looking to 'dig deep' on the road

The Blackhawks’ losses have piled up lately, their once seemingly secure place among the Central Division’s best now tenuous.

For Niklas Hjalmarsson, the reason for recent issues wasn’t difficult to figure out.

“I just think the competitiveness hasn’t really been there the last couple of games, and there’s no real excuse for that,” Hjalmarsson said. “You can be tired physically and mentally but you can still go out there and battle hard. I just think we haven’t done that well enough, me included. I feel I have to be much better in my game, so I’m looking forward to the trip to get together with the team and try to find a way back here to get some more wins.”

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The Blackhawks hope to take advantage of this current respite, rest and refocus before hitting the road and facing Calgary on Saturday night. It’s been a tough stretch, but the Blackhawks say they can come out of it.

“I think as individuals we all have to dig deep. That’s the only way to get out of situations like this. Whatever you have to do, process it in your own mind, just dig deep,” Andrew Desjardins said. “It comes down to puck battles, the rawness of the game. It goes back to the basics. A lot of it is just playing smart, playing hard and winning those puck battles. That’s what the key is here. We have to be a little pissed off, too, to be honest.”

The Blackhawks aren’t too happy that they’ve made up little ground in the Central, where they’re currently third. In fact their losses, coupled with fourth-place Nashville’s surge, means they’re close to losing ground.

Instead of practicing on Wednesday the Blackhawks had off-ice workouts and “met,” as coach Joel Quenneville put it.

“I don't think we can be happy with the way we’re going along here, so we want to make sure we rectify it,” he said. “Whether we’re angry or how we want to channel it, but let’s make sure that [this is] not good enough or not acceptable.”

The Blackhawks’ offense has been hit-and-miss lately but as Hjalmarsson pointed out, what’s happening on the other side is the bigger problem.

“As long as we play well defensively, which we haven’t done lately, we usually find a way to win games,” Hjalmarsson said. “We create [scoring] chances by playing good defense: counter attack and creating chances, breaking out plays defensively. We have to find a way to be better defensively and the offense will come automatically.”

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That defense hasn’t been good lately. Overall this season, the Blackhawks have allowed 2.47 goals per game, which isn't bad at all. But in the 25 games since their franchise-record, 12-game winning streak, that number has increased to 2.96 goals per game. Part of that is defense and part of that is goaltending not being as strong as it was earlier this season. Corey Crawford, who’s been very good most of this season, struggled in recent starts before being sidelined with an upper-body injury.

The Blackhawks have time to turn things around before the postseason begins. They say they can come out of their doldrums by getting their competitiveness back. Perhaps the road rekindles that.

“You know it’s one of those things that’s up and down. Hopefully going on the road, guys will be together and spark something,” Desjardins said. “I mean it goes back to everybody having to focus a little bit more. We have to stop this and start winning, start playing the right way.”

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."