Core's dedication impresses newer Blackhawks


Core's dedication impresses newer Blackhawks

Kimmo Timonen has seen plenty of good players and been on several good squads in his long NHL career.

As far as team resolve, however, nothing may beat the one the Blackhawks core has established and practiced the last few seasons.

“I’ve seen a lot of teams, a lot of hockey players, a lot of different systems. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to these guys,” Timonen said on Thursday. “I would say the top eight guys who have been here for six or seven years, these guys are so dedicated for this sport, hockey, just taking care of themselves.

“It surprised me. I’ve never seen that before. It is not a surprise these guys have won it couple times and been in Conference Finals every year.”

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That dedication and mental strength, coupled with the talent, have helped the Blackhawks play a lot of hockey the past few seasons. And it has them vying for another trophy as the team heads back to Tampa for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night.

For those who have been in the Blackhawks’ locker room for a while, the team’s ability to handle pressure and thrive in critical situations and on big stages isn’t a big surprise anymore. For those like Timonen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and others who haven’t been here long, it’s eye opening in a good way.

“Just seeing how a 24-hour commitment that everyone puts in, takes care of themselves, they're some of the most competitive, hard-working people I've ever met,” van Riemsdyk said. “You can see that on the ice; no matter what the situation, you feel confident we're going to work our way back, get those chances at the end to have a chance.”

Game 4 was a perfect example of that. The Blackhawks didn’t play very well on Wednesday night, managing just two shots on goal in the game’s first 20 minutes. Yet there they were leading 2-1 as time wound down in regulation, fighting off a Lightning attack that somehow didn’t result in a game-tying goal.

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Brad Richards talked earlier this postseason of the self-sufficient Blackhawks locker room. There are enough players from that core, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, who have been here and done this enough and keep calm. That thought process is evident on the ice, too, from when bounces don’t go the Blackhawks’ way to when they do.

“This team has a lot of experience,” Richards said at the time. “The more you do it, the more you stay with the process, stay with the structure, all this stuff. This team has been doing it for seven years. Your core group doesn't overreact. It's pretty even keel.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said it’s not really about talk with this group.

“These guys don't really say a whole lot,” he said. “I think they let the way they play and the way they carry themselves do a lot of their speaking for them.”

The Blackhawks have built a core that knows how to handle the ups and downs of the postseason and knows how to win. Some of the newer Blackhawks have been pleasantly surprised with just how resilient this group can be.

“I think there's an appreciation for the way, watching these guys from afar. Coming into a new team, you see the way they compete on a game-to-game basis,” Quenneville said. “They see how important winning is around here; probably very noticeable.”


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks


Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."