Blackhawks

Blackhawks: Vermette gaining victories, confidence on face-offs

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Blackhawks: Vermette gaining victories, confidence on face-offs

Winning face-offs: the Blackhawks have had their moments in that category, with Jonathan Toews long being the most consistent player there.

It was one of the reasons Antoine Vermette was acquired by the Blackhawks at the trade deadline. His first round numbers, coming off healthy-scratch status in the first two games against the Nashville Predators, were OK.

“It’s match-ups, sometimes,” said Vermette, who admitted he wasn’t sure what his first-round win percentages were. “You get to know the opponent a little better than some guys. Sometimes you get on a roll as well and you get a little rhythm in your face-off as well.

[MORE HAWKS: Despite lengthy rest, Blackhawks remain focused on Ducks]

Well, Vermette got on a roll that had him at his face-off best in the second round.  After winning 44.4 to 65 percent of his face-offs against the Predators, Vermette took off against the Minnesota Wild, his winning percentages ranging from 55.6 percent (Game 3) to as high as 80 percent (Game 4). All those victories were a big help for the Blackhawks, who swept the Wild and will face the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final, beginning on Sunday.

“I thought he improved tremendously in the dot. [When] you’re out there against other lines, in your own end, the emphasis on winning or just getting it out cleanly is what we look for. And he won several big faceoffs in our own end, and it helps us,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “He did a good job; I thought he progressed in his 5-on-5 play, as well. So it was a good series for him.”

Confidence is a pivotal part of any player’s game. Vermette’s confidence probably wasn’t too high as the playoffs began, and he was a healthy scratch in Games 1 and 2 vs. Nashville. But as he’s played through this postseason he’s looking better, especially in the face-off circle.

Still, it’s a fine line between a face-off win and loss.

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“It’s pretty tight,” Vermette said. “At that point you hear a lot about details: every team, every center tries to do the best with it. Certainly the faceoff area, everyone’s trying to get an advantage right off the bat. You start with the puck or you’re chasing it; the difference is slim. Sometimes you get bounces here and there but for the most part, you try to give yourself a better chance.”

Vermette has given himself and the Blackhawks a chance with his face-off victories. He has won 67 of his 104 postseason face-offs (64.4 percent). He knows that percentage is a bit inflated – Toews is at 50.7 percent, but has taken 123 more face-offs this postseason. Still, he’s back to winning at the dot, which is his strength.

“I’ve been around enough to know that, you want to reach for that [higher percentage] for sure but 55 is usually pretty good. You want to be that,” said Vermette, who says he’s feeding off that confidence. “There’s momentum, timing, different opponent. There’s a good thing going on you want to feed off it, for sure.”

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

How Blackhawks plan to handle Corey Crawford's workload

Corey Crawford is back and it didn't look like he skipped much of a beat. The Blackhawks were handed their first regulation loss of the season to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, but the 33-year-old netminder stopped 27 of 30 shots (.900 save percentage) in his season debut and made several timely saves to keep his team in it.

In the larger picture, it was a win based on how well Crawford looked between the pipes.

"Yeah, I think it is," coach Joel Quenneville said after practice on Friday. "It's one of things we were wondering, how he would handle post-game and how he came in today. Very encouraging signs. He felt good in all aspects of what he went through and dealt with, and practiced well today too, so that was good."

The first one is in the books.

But what's the plan going forward? Will Crawford be on a "pitch count" or will they treat him like they have in past seasons when he was healthy?

In the past, Crawford has generally started somewhere in between 55-58 games per season. Part of that has been because of injuries. Another part is the Blackhawks have had reliable backups, which allowed them to give Crawford an extra night off here and there to keep him fresh.

It's not unreasonable, though, to think Crawford could flirt with 50 starts, considering he missed only five games to start the season. And they can still accomplish that by playing it safe.

The Blackhawks have 13 more back-to-backs this season, which gives them the opportunity to start Cam Ward at some point in each of them. That leaves room for another 15 or so starts to sprinkle in for Ward that could serve as rest days for Crawford and still being on track to start around 50.

Obviously, the Blackhawks want to be careful with how much they ask of Crawford because concussions are tricky to deal with and every player responds differently to it.

His return comes at a time where the Blackhawks are slated to play seven games in 11 days after playing just two in the previous 10. Thursday marked the start of that stretch.

"He’ll tell us how he feels and we’ll go from there and make those decisions," Quenneville said.

The Blackhawks have been on record saying they prefer not to carry three goaltenders. But in this case it makes sense. At least in the short term.

Quenneville said Friday that the Blackhawks will reevaluate the situation at the end of the weekend following the beginning of a busy stretch where they'll play three games in four days.

"Yeah, that’s the mindset," he said. "Let’s see how we handle these three in four and then we’ll address it."

Crawford is expected to start on Saturday in Columbus, making it his second start in three days. That's when they'll get a better sense of how he's handling things.

If it were up to him, Crawford said he feels he's prepared for it.

"Yeah, sure," Crawford said. "Why not? I've been working hard with [strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman]. He's got me where I need to be, so I'm in shape right now. Why not?"

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Thoughts on Corey Crawford's season debut

In the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle, Jamal Mayers and Charlie Roumeliotis recap Corey Crawford’s season debut after missing nearly 10 months with a concussion.

Mayers talks about the Kitty system that Niklas Hjalmarsson and Vinnie Hinostroza probably dealt with in their returns to Chicago.

The guys also discuss what’s next for Crawford, the upcoming matchup against Artemi Panarin and the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Blackhawks’ biggest areas for improvement.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below, and be sure to subscribe, rate us and write a review!