Five Questions heading into the Blackhawks season


Five Questions heading into the Blackhawks season

Here we are, folks, with another regular season about to begin. The Blackhawks will open this one as they have two others recently, by raising a banner to commemorate another Stanley Cup victory.

But once that banner joins the other five in the rafters, then the Blackhawks get to work. Yes, they’ll have that target on their backs. And no, no bringing up the term “Cup hangover” – well, except for that time right there. But for a team that went through some offseason changes again, there are questions again. So let’s look at Five Questions (or Things, if you’re into continuity) entering the Blackhawks’ season.

1. Is Artemi Panarin the real deal? An upper-body injury denied Panarin most of the preseason, with him getting into that final game on Saturday. Those of us watching, including the Blackhawks, only have the small sample size from which to draw. Still, it looked promising. Panarin is like Teuvo Teravainen the last two years. The talent is there; it’s all about him adjusting to life on and off the (North American) ice. That turned out pretty well for Teravainen, didn’t it?

[MORE HAWKS: Teuvo Teravainen likely to start season at wing]

2. Is Teravainen starting on the wing the right call? Personally, I say it is. Yes, the Blackhawks worked with him at center, and we all know how this goes: he could be back there by next week. But Teravainen is more suited to the wing. The kid has play-making skills, as we all saw during the Stanley Cup Final; he can work from his bag of tricks a lot better at wing than at center. Keep him on the wing as much as possible.

3. Will Bryan Bickell put together the season he needs? The Blackhawks wanted to jolt the left wing. And when they placed him on waivers last week, the message couldn’t have been any clearer. As coach Joel Quenneville said on Saturday, the Blackhawks need him. If he’s anything like he was in 2013, from the physical game to adding a few goals here and there, he can become another threat in the lineup. Quenneville said he liked Bickell’s response in Saturday’s preseason finale, which came a few hours after he cleared waivers. Bickell needs to keep having that response all season.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

4. Will Artem Anisimov be the second-line center the Blackhawks are looking for? Considering the Blackhawks gave Anisimov a contract extension not long after he was acquired this summer, he better be. Anisimov showed good chemistry with Patrick Kane and Panarin in the final preseason game; Quenneville already said there could be something to that line. Anisimov will be like other news players here, adjusting to the Blackhawks’ system as he goes. But he gives the Blackhawks a strong and big – another thing they’ve been missing there – option at second-line center.

5. How will the defensive changes fare? As of now, the Blackhawks’ seven defensemen will be Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Trevor Daley, Trevor van Riemsdyk, David Rundblad and Ville Pokka. How they’re paired is uncertain, although Keith and van Riemsdyk played some during the preseason, as did Seabrook and Daley. How much shuffling will Quenneville do, considering the changes back there this season? Pokka was recalled on Tuesday; does he get into a few games? The Blackhawks’ biggest questions are here to start the season. We all know what Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson can do when pressed into extra service – please see the final two rounds of the 2015 playoffs. But over 82 games, the Blackhawks will need reliable play throughout their defensive corps. Stay tuned.

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks


Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a Marcus Kruger redirection goal. The next one was the dagger, a beautiful give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."

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

COLUMBUS — 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."