Blackhawks

Blackhawks ramp up practice ahead of Western Conference Final

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Blackhawks ramp up practice ahead of Western Conference Final

The typically short Blackhawks practices were longer – and by longer we still mean only about 45-50 minutes, because coach Joel Quenneville has never been a lengthy practice guy.

Still, there were scrimmages and there were battle drills along the boards, things usually reserved for when the Blackhawks are going through a losing streak or Quenneville’s trying to stoke their fire. But now, they’re needed for a team looking to stay sharp.

With the long layoff between their second-round wrap-up and the Western Conference Final, which begin Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks are doing everything they can to do the impossible: simulate a game with practices.

[MORE HAWKS: Full schedule of Blackhawks-Ducks Western Conference Final]

“It’s one of those things you can’t do,” Andrew Shaw said. “A game is totally different, pace is always faster, more physical. [Do a] couple battle drills, some quick scrimmages to get the pace going, keep the legs fresh.”

Nevertheless, you do what you have to do when you have this much time to kill between games. When the Blackhawks finally face the Ducks on Sunday, they will have had nine days between games. The Blackhawks took several days off in this time but the past few days they amped up the practices to prepare for the next round.

“I thought the last two days we had great practices; much better pacing, good energy,” Quenneville said. “There’s a lot of days in between but that’s the way it is. We’re trying to get ourselves where we’re competing at a different level here.”

So you mix up practices and throw in a few drills you normally don’t do. Even though they haven’t had a postseason break like this in the past the Blackhawks know what to do this time of year: stay sharp but don’t get overzealous out there.

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“You want to have a good mix of competitive drills but you also want to be safe out there and make sure you’re not injuring your teammates or yourself,” Patrick Sharp said. “This time of year we’re all professionals, we know what it takes to get ourselves ready to play. Our coach has done a good job of preparing us but at the same time we’re pros and hopefully we’ll be ready to go.”

You can’t do much about the schedule. Between the Eastern Conference’s second round lasting longer than the West’s – the Ducks eliminated the Calgary Flames in five games – and other arena obligations, the Blackhawks and Ducks just have to deal with the extended break. Hockey will resume again for them soon enough. The Blackhawks did their best to stay sharp for when it does.

“We like those type of practices, especially having so many,” Shaw said. “We’re anxious to play and know we’ll come out here and give everything we’ve got for 40 minutes and stay fresh mentally and physically.” 

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."