Blackhawks

Closing it out: Five things from Blackhawks-Wild

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Closing it out: Five things from Blackhawks-Wild

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the Blackhawks began their second-round series with the Minnesota Wild, many expected this series to go six, seven games to declare a winner.

But in just four games — albeit four close games — the Blackhawks dispatched the Wild for the third consecutive postseason. The end came quicker than most of us foresaw, even those of us who shun predictions like Dracula shuns sunlight. Maybe it was experience, maybe it was all parts of their game clicking, but the Blackhawks collected their second series sweep since 2010, when they did the same to the San Jose Sharks in that year’s Western Conference Finals.

[MORE: Blackhawks sweep Wild, move on to Western Conference Final]

So before we pack up and head home for an extended rest, let’s look at the Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ 4-3 victory over the Wild.

1. Playing to the end.

Yes, it was an interesting ending with the Wild scoring twice in the final two-plus minutes to cut Chicago’s lead to just one goal. As coach Joel Quenneville called it, it was “haywire.” Still, this was a pretty complete effort, not just in this game but also in the other three. The Blackhawks knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They knew the Wild would come with everything it had, and it just about forced a Game 5. But credit the Blackhawks for coming up with that one last stop at the end to avoid playing another game.

2. Patrick Kane does it again.

Let’s all move past the “oh, he was supposed to be out 12 weeks” thing, shall we? Kane isn’t the first guy to come back after six or seven weeks from a fractured clavicle. Not sure, though, that many have come back as well as he has. After a decent first round Kane took off in this one, and he scored his fifth goal of this series in the third period tonight. Said Kane following this one, “I still think there’s some areas that I can try to improve a little bit.” Sure, let’s go with that.

[SHOP: Get a Patrick Kane jersey here]

3. Defensive changes coming.

Michal Rozsival suffered a horrific-looking left-leg injury on Thursday night and Quenneville said it “doesn’t look good.” Doubt Rozsival is back for the Western Conference Finals or beyond this postseason. The Blackhawks’ remaining defensemen, especially the top four, played well in the period-plus of Rozsival’s absence. Those four will benefit from the rest they’ll get now and Quenneville has to figure out his fifth and sixth defensemen. Does David Rundblad draw in? Does Kimmo Timonen, who’s playing limited minutes stay in the lineup? As Quenneville always tells us, we’ll see.

4. A frustrating end for the Wild.

Minnesota thought it had enough to get over the hump this season, to finally beat the Blackhawks in the postseason. But as in the previous two times against the Blackhawks, the Wild’s best weren’t that in this series. Zach Parise had just one goal, and that was in Game 1. Same for Nino Niederreiter, who didn’t score until the waning minutes of Game 4. Ryan Suter had a horrible series. Devan Dubnyk wasn’t the difference in goal. The Wild had a tremendous second half to the regular season. They deserve full marks for getting this far. But head to head vs. the Blackhawks, the same issues were there once again.

5. Get some rest.

We’ll see how long this Western Conference Final wait ends up being, but the Blackhawks will take any rest they can get this time of year. They should have a couple of days, at least, to relax, unwind and watch other teams play hockey. Let’s not get into the rust-or-ready stuff yet. It’s the postseason, and healing bumps and bruises, even if they’re minor, is more important right now. The Blackhawks have earned a nice break. They’ll use it wisely.

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."