Blackhawks

An early look at Lightning and a few ties to Blackhawks

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An early look at Lightning and a few ties to Blackhawks

We’re just about at the month of June. And this year, much to their liking, the Blackhawks will be playing through the start of it.

One year to the date after the Blackhawks wrapped up their 2014 postseason, they’re continuing their 2015 run when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. The series starts Wednesday at Amalie Arena, with Game 2 there on Saturday.

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But with all the focus we’ve had on the Blackhawks and their Western Conference foes, what do we know about the Lightning? We’ll save our edges for when the series begins later this week. For now, however, here are a few tidbits about the Lightning, and a few connections to the Blackhawks.

— Familiar faces. Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean knows Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford very well. Jean coached Crawford when the latter played for the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL) from 2001-2005. Last postseason, Jean spoke of how far Crawford’s come since those early days. “I’ve seen him grow from a teen to a man,” Jean said. When I see the work he had to go into the minors, to pay his dues and learn to be a consistent goaltender and then to be able to duplicate that in the pros, I’m very proud of him.”

— Seems like old times. Brad Richards will experience “a lot of different feelings” in facing his former team this series. Richards played his first seven seasons with the Lightning, winning the Stanley Cup – and the Conn Smythe Trophy – with them in 2004. The Lightning were going through severe financial issues when Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars in February of 2008, and he’s impressed with the team’s turnaround. “I’m very happy that it is back on track and doing what they’re doing down there,” Richards said. “It is going to be special, but I want to win [a Cup] so we’ll worry about friendships later.”

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— Unsung hero. Every postseason has a surprise outstanding performer, and Tyler Johnson has been that for the Lightning. The undrafted Johnson has scored 12 goals in 20 playoff games, including a hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers. Johnson isn’t the biggest player out there, but he’s been a tremendous force for the Lightning.

— Former captain on current captain. Brenden Morrow, who signed with the Lightning last summer, is making his first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2000, when he was with the Dallas Stars. In 2010 Morrow, then captain of the Stars, was Team Canada teammates with Jonathan Toews, who had just gotten the Blackhawks captaincy that offseason. A few months later the Blackhawks would win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years and Morrow saw the effect Toews had on the team. “I think at that point, they already had success,” Morrow said. “So you could tell that team was on its way, and [Toews] was the guy catapulting it.”

— Heating up at the right time. Show of hands: who was convinced Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos was hurt as the playoffs began? We were, and the no goals and three assists Stamkos had in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings seemed to back that up. Well, apparently he’s OK, because Stamkos has gotten better as the playoffs have continued. He scored four goals in as many contests (Games 2-5) against the New York Rangers. He also had three assists in that series.

— Bishop over King. Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop outdueled Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference final. Yes, we realize it’s not truly goalie against goalie but Bishop won out regardless. He had his rough outings, including giving up five goals to the Rangers in Game 6. But he shut out the Rangers on their home ice in Game 5 and again in Game 7. That’s pretty darn impressive.

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."