Blackhawks

Blackhawks' mental toughness on full display this postseason

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Blackhawks' mental toughness on full display this postseason

Corey Crawford, Teuvo Teravainen, and Antoine Vermette all have something in common. Each of them were benched at some point during this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, and have responded by proving to be three of the most valuable pieces on the Blackhawks as the postseason has gotten deeper.

Crawford, who was temporarily replaced by Scott Darling in the first round, has faced plenty of adversity throughout his career, but perhaps none more challenging that this year's playoffs. The Blackhawks netminder lost his net, regained it, and hasn't looked back, silencing his critics the way he often does when the game's matter most.

"He's been really good in this series," said coach Joel Quenneville following a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5.

[MORE: Blackhawks need balanced emotions in Game 6]

Teravainen, who was a healthy scratch as recently as Game 3 of the Western Conference Final, found himself fighting for a roster spot during the regular season and has since evolved from a secret weapon to a dangerous one.

After scoring the game-tying goal and assisting on the game-winner, Teravainen became the first rookie to register two third-period points in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. He followed that up by potting another one in Game 2, becoming the fifth rookie since 1927 to score a goal in each of the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.

“We’re fortunate he’s been in some big stages and settings in the past," Quenneville said after Teravainen's breakout game in Game 1. "He seems to do well in those situations."

And as if the Blackhawks' most important trade deadline acquisition wasn't making his presence felt already, Vermette is reassuring that the first-round pick and prospect general manager Stan Bowman gave up for him was worth it after recording his third game-winning goal of the postseason on Saturday night.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The Blackhawks center struggled to find his role — at one point, was moved to wing — in Chicago, but never got discouraged. He used each opportunity as a chance to positively contribute in a way he hadn't been used to.

“It’s tough," forward Kris Versteeg, who'd been a healthy scratch in 10 of the Blackhawks' 17 games in the first three rounds, said on staying mentally prepared. "Vermy was a top guy in Phoenix. He played top minutes. And when you come here it’s an adjustment. Obviously your minutes are gonna be cut down, and you’ve got to adjust to the system and adjust to a different playing style and the different minutes you’re playing. He’s done a great job here, especially of late."

Experience is the main reason the resilient Blackhawks feel they can win any game and any series, no matter the circumstance. But credit their mental toughness for sacrificing the individual spotlight for team victories, especially those who don't get as much recognition in the first place.

 

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."