Blackhawks looking to play best hockey in stretch run

Blackhawks looking to play best hockey in stretch run

There comes a time in every season when things get sluggish. You get that with the NHL schedule: games 30-50 can be a bit of a drudgery in this marathon of a season.

That part of the schedule, however, is going away. Now there are about 30 games (28 for the Blackhawks) remaining. Now, it’s getting closer to the postseason. Now, it’s time to pick up the pace.

“You start to really make a push here,” Brian Campbell said. “Obviously people are jockeying for positions. It’s always working to get points down the stretch and teams are trying to move around in positions. It’s not easy to do. It’s going to be a dogfight here.”

So the dog days of the schedule are giving way to the dog-fight days of the schedule. It’s mad-dash time and the Blackhawks, while in good shape in the standings, want to keep pace and possibly even improve their situation.

But they won’t be alone in that goal. Their final three opponents on the second half of the Ice Show trip have their own agendas. The Minnesota Wild, Wednesday’s opponent, will try to put more space between them and the Blackhawks. The Winnipeg Jets are on the playoff bubble. The Edmonton Oilers are third, but well within striking distance of first, in the Pacific.

Let the über-meaningful games begin.

“Coming toward the playoffs, you see the standings and you, you cannot calculate but you can see who can face who,” Marian Hossa said. “Obviously the last couple of years it’s so much tougher because everyone’s waiting for the last game but it’s nice to see and have that race and the intensity higher. Everybody will play tighter and the pace will pick up more. There’ll be less room on the ice, too.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

As much as the Blackhawks would like to improve their place in the standings in this stretch run, they ultimately want to improve their game. As Campbell said, “I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey yet, so we’re trying to get to that level.”

The Blackhawks’ inconsistent outings have been more prevalent lately. Marcus Kruger talked of that, citing Thursday’s 4-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes as an example. The Blackhawks got off to a 3-0 lead thanks to a tremendous first period but their mistakes in the second turned a lopsided game into one that was too close for their liking. 

“It’s attention to details,” he said. “We know how important momentum is in games. When you get it you don’t want to give it up and maybe this year we’ve been doing that a few times. You could see that [vs. Arizona]. We had all the momentum going into the second period and then they had a 5-on-3 and scored and it’s a different game. It’s attention to details.”

The NHL’s dog days are over, the marathon of a schedule giving way to the sprint to the finish. For the Blackhawks, placement in the standings is important but playing better, playing the consistent game that’s eluded them most of this season, is more critical.  

“Obviously we had really good stretches and others not. Coming the last [28] games, we have to understand and try to play tighter and be more on the same page. We’re more successful when we’re on the same page, when we play tighter as a group of five instead of being too spread out with good teams going through so easily,” Hossa said. “Little things like that make such a huge difference.”

How COVID-19 crisis could impact Blackhawks, NHL's salary cap

How COVID-19 crisis could impact Blackhawks, NHL's salary cap

On March 4, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told general managers that the projected salary cap for the 2020-21 season is expected to be in the range of $84 million and $88.2 million. That's roughly a $2.5 million to $6.7 million increase after it went up only $2 million last season.

But eight days later, the NHL put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's unclear if or when hockey will even resume at this point. Because of the uncertainty and the risk of the league potentially losing $1 billion in hockey-related revenue, there's legitimate concern about what the ceiling could look like after we get through this, and not just for next season.

Could the NHL's salary cap stay the same? Might it even go down to help ease the escrow pain for players? Anything is possible, but it would require both the NHL and NHLPA to come to an agreement on what that artificial number could look like.

If the salary cap remains flat, the Blackhawks would be one of the many teams that would find themselves in an extremely tough position. And they better start preparing for that scenario.

As of right now, the Blackhawks' projected cap hit for next season is $74.1 million, according to Cap Friendly. That number factors in the three players on long-term injured reserve (Calvin de Haan, Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw) but also includes the current players on the roster, which comes out to 26 total, so cuts obviously must be made to get down to the maximum of 23.

But what that number doesn't include is the potential performance bonus overages and the fact the Blackhawks don't have a goaltender signed beyond this season other than Collin Delia, which doesn't leave much room for free agent signings elsewhere. Heck, taking care of their own guys is going to be a major challenge.

The Blackhawks have nine pending restricted free agents, which most notably includes Drake Caggiula, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome. Corey Crawford is their highest-profile unrestricted free agent. Those are four key pieces the Blackhawks must try to squeeze in under the cap if the priority is to bring all of them back, and — loosely projecting — gives them around $9-10 million to do so.

You have to wonder if it makes more sense for everyone involved to agree on one-year deals and revisit things the following year after more clarity is provided on the NHL's financial situation, especially with Seattle preparing for league entry and the U.S. television deal set to expire after the 2021-22 season.

For now, the Blackhawks and the rest of the NHL are waiting to see what the next steps are. But the financial ramifications will be significant, and it's something every team must now navigate through. 

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2010 Hawks Rewind: 3 things we noticed in Blackhawks' Game 2 win over Sharks

2010 Hawks Rewind: 3 things we noticed in Blackhawks' Game 2 win over Sharks

In honor of the 10-year anniversary of the 2010 Stanley Cup team, NBC Sports Chicago is re-airing each of the Blackhawks' 16 postseason wins from the run that ended a 49-year championship drought. You can join the conversation using #HawksRewind on social media.

After stealing Game 1 in San Jose, the Blackhawks took care of business in Game 2 by beating the Sharks 4-2 to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Final. Here are three things we noticed in the win:

1. Building a cushion

You knew the Sharks were going to come out hungry after losing Game 1 in their own building, and the Blackhawks certainly matched that intensity. 

After Andrew Ladd broke the scoreless tie at the 12:48 mark of the first period, Dustin Byfuglien and Jonathan Toews followed suit in the second to put the Blackhawks in front 3-0. It was crucial for the visiting team not to give the Sharks any momentum, and it wasn't until 31:08 into the game that the home team finally got on the board.

2. A make-up game on special teams?

The Blackhawks had zero power plays in Game 1, so they didn't get a chance of testing a Sharks team that had the fifth-ranked penalty kill percentage (85.0) in the regular season. But that changed in Game 2.

The Sharks racked up 22 total penalty minutes and committed six minor penalties, two of which came with 18 seconds left in the game that saw two Blackhawks get sent off as well. The Blackhawks committed only one minor penalty in the previous 59:42.

Both teams converted on the power play once, but the Blackhawks staying out of the box for the majority of the game certainly played a role in preventing the Sharks from getting within striking distance or taking control early.

3. Duncan Keith's strong performance

He didn't garner as much attention as others, but Keith was solid for the Blackhawks in Game 2. He recorded two assists, six shot attempts (three on goal), four blocked shots and led all skaters with 30:21 of ice time. No other skater logged more than 27:56.

Keith was pointless in his first five postseason games, but had nine points (one goal, eight assists) in his next nine.

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