Blackhawks

Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series

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Five storylines to follow during Blackhawks-Lightning series

Before the Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning square off for Game 1, let's take a look at five storylines to follow throughout the Stanley Cup Final:

1. Adjusting from physical Ducks to speedy Lightning
 
After playing a bruising Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks are now shifting their focus to a Lightning-fast Tampa Bay team. That means short shifts and fresh legs at all times. The Lightning — the youngest out of all 16 playoff teams — come at you in waves, and force their opponents to keep up with their speed rather than dodge their hits. The Ducks tried wearing out the Blackhawks by using their physicality but fell short. It's a completely different hockey game this time around. While the Blackhawks are certainly capable of playing an up-tempo style, defending a team just as fast can be more taxing than anything.
 
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2. Can Lightning contain "nuclear option" of Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane?
 
Coach Joel Quenneville normally resorts to inserting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the same line during emergency situations, and trailing 3-2 in the Western Conference Final to the Ducks qualified as that. Since then, the two have exploded for a combined seven points (three goals, four assists) making it difficult for the Blackhawks head coach to separate them. So he won't, as indicated during Tuesday's morning skate. If that's the case, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has no other option but to keep its top two defensemen, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, on the same pairing rather than utilize their minutes separately.
 
3. How will Blackhawks slow down "Triplets" line?
 
The intriguing part about Kane moving to the Blackhawks' first line means Marian Hossa, one of the NHL's best defensive forwards, will be bumped to the second unit. The line of Saad-Toews-Hossa has been brilliant at stifling the opponents' top players, and splitting them up could — for the Lightning — be looked at as an opportunity to exploit the defensive matchup. Tampa Bay's "Triplets" line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov has been nearly unstoppable this postseason. They've combined for 45 points (28 goals, 27 assists) in 20 playoff games so far, and continue to elevate their game as the lights shine brighter. Quenneville showed plenty of confidence in his fourth line last series, which did a solid job of holding down the Ducks' top line featuring Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. But the "Triplets" are a much quicker group, and this is where Hossa's two-way ability may be called upon. With the home team having the benefit of last line change, we'll get our first look as to how the Lightning will set the tone and play their matchups in Games 1 and 2.
 
4. Corey Crawford's experience vs. Ben Bishop's youth
 
Corey Crawford has bounced back from his first round debacle against Nashville as well as he could have, in large part because of his experience. He's won a Stanley Cup and has been in the league long enough to know what it takes to overcome certain types of adversity. Ben Bishop, on the other hand, is still a rookie in the postseason. Make no mistake, he's one of the biggest reasons the Lightning have made it this far, but Bishop is still searching for that consistency. The 6-foot-7 netminder earned a pair of impressive shutout wins, including Game 7, against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, but on the contrary also allowed five goals in each of his three home games. Whether Bishop's inexperience will play a factor on the biggest stage will be something to keep an eye on, especially considering the tall challenge it was for Ducks goaltender Frederik Andersen — who cruised through the first two rounds — to handle such adversity in his first playoff run against the Blackhawks.
 
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5. Blue line depth will be tested
 
On paper, this year's Stanley Cup Final is about as even as it gets. Both teams have fire power and the ability to confidently roll any of its four forward lines. But both teams also have question marks on the back end of its defense. The Blackhawks rely heavily on their top four defensemen to play high quality minutes. It's a risky game to play as the postseason gets deeper and the opponents get tougher, especially against this Lightning team full of fresh legs. Tampa Bay divides up minutes on its blue line more evenly but there are still holes that the Blackhawks will surely look to take advantage of. It's the weakest link for both teams, and the one that hides its issue better than the other may be the team that's hoisting the Stanley Cup when it's all said and done.

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."