Blackhawks

Examining the Blackhawks at the halfway mark

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Examining the Blackhawks at the halfway mark

Halfway through. The Chicago Blackhawks have played 41 regular-season games and have 41 left to go. So how did they do during that first half, and what do they need to do in the second?

The Blackhawks havent continued their December success in January, as theyre still looking for their first victory of the new year. And while they are no longer the best in the league, or in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks have nonetheless done pretty well in the first half.

There have been some good ones and some tough ones, but overall were in the thick of things, said Duncan Keith. I still think weve done some good things. We know theres a lot of room for improvement and a lot of areas we can get better at.

One of those areas is goals allowed. The Blackhawks have given up 120 goals so far this season, the fourth highest total in the West and the most of the conferences current top eight squads. The Blackhawks defense has been either great or struggling, and their bad games have been glaring.

For sure (there have been) too many goals, coach Joel Quenneville said after the Blackhawks gave up nine in two games this weekend. We had a great stretch prior to these last three games. Weve been solid in net, but weve given up too many of those types of goals that are preventable with position and awareness.

The Blackhawks defense was stellar through the back part of December, when they allowed two goals or less in their last seven games of 2011. That is what theyll need again for the final 41.

They also need to regain their scoring balance, which was also a December staple. When the Blackhawks have had those four lines rolling, as Quenneville likes to say, theyve been tough to beat. But the offense has quieted in January, too. Patrick Kane continues to struggle. And outside of rookies Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes goals, the teams role players have been too quiet.

The Blackhawks should be getting a little healthier soon Steve Montador was taken off the injured reserve today. And with plenty of cap space, general manager Stan Bowman will get that missing piece to push this team forward into the playoffs.

As they sit second in the West entering Sundays game against Detroit, the Blackhawks are still in good shape. But they dont want to get in too much of a rut this month, especially when there are still a lot of home games left of which to take advantage.

Were still pretty good in the standings, Niklas Hjalmarsson said. The last couple of games here havent been good enough. Hopefully we can start the second half with a couple of wins and get it rolling again.

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."