Blackhawks

Good timing: Blackhawks' complete game returning

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Good timing: Blackhawks' complete game returning

ST. PAUL, Minn. – When the Blackhawks were going through their first-round series against the Nashville Predators, their offense was clicking. Their top players were contributing with goals and assists galore.

The penalty kill, the team defense and the goaltending, however, were more up in the air. The first two were struggling and the third was in carousel mode. And as the second round began, there were questions if the Blackhawks could improve in those three categories, and what would happen if they didn’t?

Well, three games into this series with the Minnesota Wild, those questions have been answered. The Blackhawks have returned to top form in all three, as evidence by their 3-0 series lead and especially their last two games, which they won 4-1 and 1-0, respectively. Corey Crawford has been part of that, too, allowing just one goal over his last two games and recording his fourth career postseason shutout on Tuesday night.

[MORE HAWKS: Goalie wins to power-play goals - Five Things from Game 3]

The Blackhawks are hitting their stride in just about every facet of their game right now, which is great for them and bad for anyone opposing them.

“It’s tough to say when you look back over the six or eight months that we’ve been playing. But I think we can be confident with how we are playing as of late,” Patrick Sharp said. “You mentioned four lines, six or seven [defensemen]. We’ve got some more guys that are ready to step in and we’ve used both goaltenders up to this point, so we feel good about our depth and where we’re sitting in the series right now.”

Coach Joel Quenneville has liked the progress the Blackhawks have made this round.

[MORE HAWKS: Crawford, Blackhawks shut out Wild in Game 3]

“I thought our first round was very close. It was on the line, game in and game out. Our game had good and bad but we’ve a lot more consistency in our game. More of a four-line rotation is coming out. No matter who’s going out there they’re doing the right things. We’re getting pressure, pace and that can make us a good team.”

The Blackhawks were playing a tenuous game through the first round. The offense was there from the start, especially from top forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Sharp. It was what the Blackhawks were giving up that was more concerning. The penalty kill, especially, didn’t look like its typical shutdown self. But players just chalked that up to the ups and downs that come with the game.

“It’s not going to be perfect all the time,” Johnny Oduya said. “At the start of the playoffs there were some goals, a couple of broken plays, that we didn’t like. But we had the confidence. We talked about that the other day, too. In games when we needed to, we could shut them down. Obviously a game like yesterday, Crow was tremendous, too, so that helps a lot.”

[SHOP: Get a Corey Crawford jersey here]

The Blackhawks weren’t perfect in the first round. They had areas in which they wanted – make that needed – to tighten up in if they wanted to be successful against the Wild. They’ve tightened up and are on the verge of eliminating the Wild for the third consecutive postseason. They’re getting scary good at a good time, at least for them.

“We’re playing well as a group,” Brent Seabrook said. “That’s what it takes to win in the playoffs is having 20 guys out there playing the same game.”

'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

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USA TODAY

'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

The last time the Blackhawks and Avalanche met, it was viewed as the most important regular season game to date for the Blackhawks because it was a chance to finally pull inside the playoff picture and push the Avalanche out of it. That was Feb. 22.

Fast forward one month and the Blackhawks are approaching a home-and-home weekend series with the Avalanche, who are currently sitting in the second wildcard spot with 78 points. The Blackhawks are at 74 with a game in hand. They have an opportunity to make things real interesting with exactly two weeks left in the season.

“It can go one of two ways,” Jonathan Toews said. “So obviously we want to play our best hockey and make sure we’re in control of who gets the points in these next two.”

The Blackhawks were encouraged with how they played in that Feb. 22 against Colorado. They led in shot attempts (73-47), shots on goal (44-31), scoring chances (40-23) and high-danger chances (20-13), according to naturalstattrick.com, except the category that mattered most and that's the scoreboard (5-3 loss).

"It's one of our better efforts of the year," coach Jeremy Colliton said after the game. "Sometimes the results don't go your way, but the challenge is to reproduce [at] that level and I think if we do, we'll get our fair share of points."

The Blackhawks are hoping a similar performance will lead to the desire result this time around. These are a pair of four-point swings that mean so much at this time of year. Colliton even acknowledged on Friday that Corey Crawford could start in both games, which would be his first back-to-back action since Nov. 4 and 5 in 2017.

The Avalanche have won three in a row, and have outscored their opponents 9-2 in that span. They're coming in hot. The Blackhawks have scored only five goals in their past three games, so they're looking to end that offensive dry spell.

The good news? The Blackhawks are 8-3-0 in their last 11 road games and have a plus-6 goal differential over that stretch. They clearly have been feeling more comfortable on the road as of late. And maybe it'll help set the tone in an all-important series.

"We’re OK with a track meet, but on our terms," Colliton said. "We want to be the one with the puck and catching them before they’re ready to defend. But they’ve got some good players and we’ve gotta be aware of them when they’re on the ice and try to keep the puck out of their hands. Hopefully — we’re coming off a loss and we know the stakes here — we’ll be really good tomorrow.”

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Offense drying up

The Blackhawks are going through a dry spell. They tried sprucing up the lines mid-game on Monday against Vancouver, and reunited Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line on Thursday to help change their fortunes. But no luck.

For the third straight game, the Blackhawks scored two goals or fewer after scoring at least three goals in 23 of their previous 27 games. The power play hasn't been nearly as effective, which has played a big part in that. 

The Blackhawks had their chances at 5-on-5, though. They led in shot attempts (64-34), shots on goal (35-20) and scoring chances (31-17) but lit the lamp only once.

"I think we played pretty good at times and maybe just couldn't find the back of the net," Jonathan Toews said. "Still pretty frustrating that it's another huge opportunity at home and it's two in a row that we fall short. Still wouldn't say we played as good in our own building as we have on the road as of late. So we have to find a way to be better here. Can't allow ourselves to fall short and not get any points anymore."

2. A goaltending duel

Going into Thursday's game, two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford was 5-0-1 with a 1.74 goals against average and .948 save percentage in his past six starts. And 20-year-old rising star Carter Hart had a .961 save percentage in his past two starts. Both of them picked up where they left off.

Crawford turned aside 25 of 27 shots for a save percentage of .926. Hart one-upped him, denying 40 of 41 shots for a save percentage of .976. It was the first time since Nov. 16 that the Blackhawks were held to only one goal, a span of 52 games.

"They locked it down pretty good," Dylan Strome said. "I think we had a decent amount of shots, but not a lot from the slot, but their goalie played good and made some big saves and we couldn’t capitalize. We hit a post. Hit a couple posts. Had some good chances. But unfortunately that didn’t go our way tonight.”

3. Breakout season for No. 56 continues

When Erik Gustafsson signed a two-year extension last March with the Blackhawks worth $1.2 million per year, it didn't sit well with some fans who believed he hadn't done enough to earn that just yet. But looking back on it, it's turned out to be one of the best bargains on the Blackhawks.

After scoring his 15th goal of the season, Gustafsson became the first Blackhawks defenseman to hit that mark since Dustin Byfuglien scored 17 goals during the 2009-10 campaign. And that was a season in which Byfuglien alternated as a defenseman and forward. It's been an impressive year for Gustafsson, and there are still nine games left to add to that total.

4. Controlling your own destiny

Western Conference bubble teams were licking their chops once again on Thursday night. After the Coyotes lost for the third straight time, it opened the door for the Blackhawks to ultimately control their own destiny. And they do.

A victory would've pulled the Blackhawks within two points of the final wildcard spot with a game in hand. This going into a weekend in which the Blackhawks will have a home-and-home against Colorado before heading to Arizona, which makes the upcoming three-game slate even more important.

The playoff race is really just beginning. Every team in the NHL is now in the single digits in the games remaining department. It's now or never.

"We're right in there," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "That's kind of how it is. People think we're out and we find a way to climb back in. That's good. That's good that we've showed that resilience for sure. We'd like to take that next step."

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