Blackhawks

On deck: Two tests against the West

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On deck: Two tests against the West

The Blackhawks sidestepped The Long Island Trap Thursday. Yeah, they blew a 2-0 lead, and needed overtime, but overall it was still a solid road effort against a team whose only two losses in their last six games have come in extra time against the Hawks.

The fact theyd already beaten New York a week ago and were skating in a building with an awful atmosphere showed they were mentally and emotionally locked-in, and they seem to have done that better on the road of late (four straight wins) than at home (1-1-1 since returning from the Circus Trip).

Next up, theyll need to carry that over in their next two games against two of the best in the West one expected, the other a surprise. San Joses been spinning its wheels a bit of late, but got their second win in their last six Thursday vs. Dallas. The Hawks will be looking to avenge their 1-0 loss in a well-played game in the Shark Tank on Thanksgiving Eve, when Antti Niemi shut them out. The Hawks have a 7-point edge on the Sharks, but San Jose has four games in-hand.

After that Sunday game, its two more days off before a trip for their first up-close look at the Wild story in Minnesota. The Wild and Hawks have each played a conference-high 29 games, but Minny has a three-point edge, courtesy of a six-game win streak the last three of which have opened a 5-game trip (Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles). Theyll finish it off Saturday in Phoenix, then Tuesday in Winnipeg before coming home to finish off three games in four nights against the Hawks, so thats an advantage the visitors should have.

But while the Hawks are trying to climb up the defensive rankings (13th in the West entering the weekend), the Wild have done it with D under new head coach Mike Yeo. Their 2.14 goals-against average is just behind St. Louis as second-best in the West. The Hawks were able to solve that with perhaps their most complete game of the season last Saturday in St. Louis. Lets see if they can bring the same type of game in these next two outings. San Joses GAA, by the way, is fifth in the conference (2.40).

Even though theyve been inconsistent of late, the Blackhawks have still managed to stay near the top of the West. Some goaltending (and defensive) questions have come up, and theyll need more offensive balance, as I wrote after Thursdays win. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa all enter the weekend among the NHLs top-17 point producers (Toews tied for 2nd in goals, Kane tied for first in assists).

After bursting out of the gate, it seems at times this Hawks team needs to be challenged be it with the opponent theyre playing, or needing to bounce back after unexpected setbacks. They've hit a few bumps along the way this past month and these next two games should provide an interesting gauge on whether the arrows definitely pointing up.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

Jimmy Greenfield, Connor McKnight, and Matt Spiegel join Kap on the panel to discuss Corey Crawford back on the ice for the first time in 10 months. The Bears have good news when it comes to Khalil Mack, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.

Plus, Fred Hoiberg announces that Jabari Parker is coming off the bench for the season opener.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”