Blackhawks

Blackhawks want to take the Penguins' place at the top again

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AP

Blackhawks want to take the Penguins' place at the top again

When the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted their second Stanley Cup last June, the Blackhawks were well ensconced in their offseason, one that was way too long for their liking. Even after a frustrating and brief postseason, some of the Blackhawks couldn’t help but notice what the Penguins did.

“It was a pretty impressive run,” Corey Crawford said. “A lot of injuries, too. I feel like they had a lot of guys hurt for a long period of time. It was a good run or two runs for that team. We definitely want to be the next team.”

Saying that is one thing. Pulling it off is quite another.

The Blackhawks have lost a few key players from their core and are trying to rebuild their bottom six to what it used to be. There are question marks on defense. And the young guys who made their debuts last season, including Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz, have to take that next step and become contributors throughout the regular season and beyond.

“We’re going to need them,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We had a number of young guys who came in and showed progression over the course of the year. Young guys coming in, [Gustav] Forsling, [Alex] DeBrincat, these guys not just contributing but also absorbing responsibility or leadership or quality ice time. They’ll all be moving up and expected to contribute in a meaningful way and be a part of the group that’ll make us a better team.”

Think back at the depth the Blackhawks had, especially on their 2013 and 2015 runs. When your fourth line is playing key minutes down the stretch or, in the case of 2013, scoring the Cup-winning goal, you know you’re living right. It was also about players who could gut out long games and take on extra minutes when others were lost to injury.

The Penguins’ Cup possibilities were supposed to be dashed when they lost Kris Letang in February. So much for that. The Blackhawks’ top four defensemen were supposed to wear out from overuse after Michal Rozsival’s ugly fractured ankle at the end of the 2015 second round. Again, skeptics be damned.

This past offseason the Penguins felt what the Blackhawks have dealt with for several years now: cap issues that forced them to get rid of/not re-sign some key members of their Cup teams. That’s not stopping some from predicting a three-peat for Pittsburgh. Even after losses you can regroup, reload and re-emerge. Just ask the Blackhawks in 2015.

When the Blackhawks see the Penguins on Thursday they’ll see themselves from a few short years ago. They want to get back there. We’ll soon find out if they have the right combination of talent and (especially) depth to do it.

“The game’s so fast, you need all four lines to contribute," Patrick Sharp. "If you’re not chipping in offensively you have to be real solid in all areas, provide some energy and be effective that way. You play 82 games at that high pace, there’s going to be bumps and bruises and there are going to be peaks and valleys. You need a lot of guys to step up at different times. It’s a good thing we’ve got some depth here.”

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: What else can the Blackhawks do this summer?

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: What else can the Blackhawks do this summer?

On the latest edition of the Hawks Talk Podcast, Charlie Roumeliotis is joined by Scott Powers of The Athletic to discuss Stan Bowman's comments following the Marian Hossa trade and debate whether they're finished making moves this summer.

They also provide their thoughts on the Blackhawks' top prospects and which players have caught their attention as development camp winds down.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: 'Our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs'

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews: 'Our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs'

Jonathan Toews watched a lot of playoff hockey this spring. 

"Quite a bit," he admitted Wednesday before making his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut at MB Ice Arena. "More than usual."

That's because the Blackhawks missed out on the postseason for the first time since his rookie year in 2007-08. It's obviously not a position he'd like himself or his team to be in, especially after experiencing three Stanley Cups in a six-year span.

But you have to find a way to take the positives out of it at this point and let it fuel you for the upcoming campaign.

"You always want to be there playing," Toews said. "But when you can maybe step away from the game a little bit and just kind of breathe and — at the same time, look back and realize you’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of success. Obviously there’s no satisfaction there, but you understand it’s not the worst thing to stop and smell the roses and appreciate what you’ve been able to experience, because I think failing to get to the playoffs makes you realize how difficult it really is and maybe it’s something you took for granted.

"But watching more hockey this spring, I think, is something that was really motivating and kind of inspiring and exciting to want to get back to that level again. You dream of playing in the NHL, but at the end of the day, you want to play playoff hockey. That’s what it’s all about."

There were plenty of things that went wrong for the Blackhawks last season and contributed to why they watched the playoffs from home, whether it's the Corey Crawford injury, the down season from Brandon Saad, or the inexperience on the blue line.

For Toews, who turned 30 in April, it's about regaining that old form that made him one of the top players in the NHL and hoping it can filter down the rest of the Blackhawks lineup.

"For me, it’s part of just recapturing that energy, that motivation, excitement and that mindset of a young player who takes nothing for granted, that you had in your younger days," he said. "But also carrying the experience with you and understanding the impact of what you say, what you do, how you carry yourself can impact your teammates, especially the young guys. For me, it comes down to knowing what to say at the right time. But letting my play be the thing that helps me lead by example. No better time than now to use that experience and that excitement trying to rebound off the season we had last year."

If there's any reason to have belief that the Blackhawks can turn it around quickly, look no further than the two teams that collided in the Stanley Cup Final: Vegas and Washington. 

The Golden Knights had the longest odds to win it all at the beginning of the season while the Capitals' championship window was perceived to be closed after they failed to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017 in the second round yet again with a loaded roster. But it's not about what's on paper.

"Watching that last series, you just knew it came down to who had the most, the deepest belief in themselves," Toews said. "I even had a hard time predicting who was going to win every series. It could’ve gone either way in a lot of situations. It’s not only motivating, seeing how fast that play was and to have missed out on playoff hockey this year and to have the drive to get back there, but knowing if you do sneak into the playoffs it doesn’t matter. You can go a long way.

"For us, thinking, 'OK, we're gonna back and win a Stanley Cup this year,' it sounds like a long shot. But as always, our No. 1 goal is getting back to the playoffs and being ready to hit our stride when we get there."