Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: It's time to get real

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Hawk Talk: It's time to get real

Monday, Oct 3, 2011
Posted: 12:36 p.m. Updated: 3:57 p.m.
By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

Unless you're into exhibition wins and losses, the Blackhawks probably couldn't have asked for much more from their preseason. Provided Dave Bolland and Ben Smith return to practice early this week, as Joel Quenneville predicted Sunday, the most important thing was to enter the regular season healthy. If you don't ask Viktor Stalberg, they've done that, and Quenneville even indicated he might be back before the projected three weeks from Wednesday's apparent knee-on-knee collision. They just have to hope the Patrick Sharp appendectomy becomes the most significant of their freaky, quirky health encounters this season.

That holds true for the road ahead. I can't help feeling that key injuries would be the only thing preventing this year's team from making a long, deep run into the playoffs again. There are some interesting new contenders and obstacles in the West this season, which we'll take a closer look at later this week. The seven practice games didn't always provide proof of what the Hawks need from some veterans, both new and returning. They'll need some to play their roles better, and hope the opening bell Friday in Dallas supplies that. Some need to play smarter and tighter. Others need to find that extra dose of mean-streak, or that final gear, or simply familiarity with another ample dose of off-season roster turnover. Just like any other preseason. But the pieces assembled, the talent on-hand, and the work of Quenneville and his staff should make this a pretty fun ride.

Two surprises emerged from the past 2-12 weeks: Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane. Saad doesn't turn 19 for another three weeks, but already has an NHL body and consistently made the right play during exhibitions, whether it put his name on the scoresheet or not. He could be back in juniors by, or shortly after, that Oct. 27th birthday, but his star rose quickly here after it fell to the second round in the June draft. Camp was just a continuation of what he displayed with the team's other prospects in July, as well as the rookie tournament early last month.

Despite early, widespread doubts, the Kane Experiment in the middle hasshowed promise. He had a rough day in the faceoff circle Sunday, goingup against more experienced centers, especially with Jonathan Toewsnot making the trip. He'll need to grow as he goes along in order tostay there, but he won slightly more than half of his faceoffs overthree games. Entering a season in which he hopes to elevate his gameinto the Hart Trophy conversation, he could do worse than playingbetween Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette.

The flip side of Kane-at-center is part of the reason it came about. Marcus Kruger didn't live up to what coaches and management expected these past couple of weeks and was outplayed by Brandon Pirri.Both wound up being sent to Rockford Monday, meaning (barring a latetrade or signing) fourth-line anchor duties could initially rest with Jamal Mayers or Ben Smith. Both Kane and Sharp would not be used at center at the same time, unless it's an emergency.

The Corey Crawford we saw in his three starts looked very much like the one we saw carry the team down the stretch last season, easing Sophomore Slump concerns of some. So what would the start of a Blackhawks season be without some goalie angst (Turco, Niemi, Huet, Khabibulin, etc.)? This one fell to the backup decision that went to Ray Emery Monday afternoon.

He caught some tough breaks, but made mistakes of his own, both in decision-making and rebound control. After not finding takers this summer and coming here on a tryout deal, he likely did not raise his value much in other teams' eyes. But he's taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals and was very sharp when Anaheim needed it most down the stretch last season after Jonas Hiller was sidelined. That came approximately a year after hip surgery that most people thought would end his career. Some respected, experienced observers expressed concern over a drop in his quickness during camp, even compared to last spring's duty with the Ducks.

More time in Rockford certainly can't hurt Alexander Salak, who had the more impressive camp, but owns just two games of NHL experience, two years ago. Would he be able to handle the backup role like Antti Niemi did a couple of years ago? He played only 32 (roughly half) of his Swedish Elite team's games a year ago, but enjoyed his best season. In the end, the decision was Emery, with the trust his game will improve as he continues working with Stephane Waite and the Hawks' staff. This time a year ago, he was shedding crutches. If he can overcome that, Hawks brass feels he can find a way to regain the form he reached just six months ago.

The good news is the NHL preseason is the shortest of all major sports. The bad news is it still doesn't provide clear answers to every single question we've had.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

How Blackhawks have turned things around defensively under Jeremy Colliton

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USA TODAY

How Blackhawks have turned things around defensively under Jeremy Colliton

The Blackhawks are, statistically, one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. They've allowed the second-most shots on goal per game (34.9), the second-most scoring chances per game (30.9), most high-danger chances at even strength per game (14.1) and second-most goals per game (3.60).

But they've had their best stretch on the defensive side of things under Jeremy Colliton over the last week and a half.

In the last four games, the Blackhawks have given up only five goals at 5-on-5 and have limited the high quality scoring chances allowed during 5-on-5 play to 6.2 per game, according to naturalstattrick.com

On Sunday in a 2-1 overtime win against Colorado, they held the Avalanche to only 20 shots on goal. It's the second time this season the Blackhawks have held their opponent to fewer than 25 shots. And over the last three games they're giving up only 24.3 shots per game, which is 10.6 shots fewer than their season average.

"I think it's just managing the puck a little better, first of all," Duncan Keith said. "If we're playing in there and we're getting pucks deep to the neutral zone, we're going to have less chances against usually and less time in our zone. There's been lots of times in the last year and a bit where we're playing in our end a lot, so it's nice to play in the other team's end. When we're at our best, we're getting pucks behind their defense and making them turn even if it's not pretty hockey."

The most effective way of limiting scoring chances is by playing on the other end of the rink, right? Keith is spot on in his assessment, and the numbers back it up.

In the last four games, the Blackhawks have controlled 59.8 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 58.7 percent of the scoring chances. Their season percentage in the shot attempts department is 49.3 and scoring chances is 46.9. They haven't generated as many high quality scoring chances, but possessing the puck is a great way to keep opponents away from your own end and, in doing so, it limits the amount of scoring chances allowed.

"I just think we're getting better, we're improving as the year goes on," Colliton said. "Everyone is getting more comfortable with how we have to play, we're defending as five guys, a little more communication out there and recognizing we can create offense from doing well defensively. We're getting there, as far as the recipe for how we can win these types of games, and going forward, hopefully [in] the playoffs that's how we have to defend there. We have to be desperate defensively.

"The goals have kind of dried up in some ways, so it's made it hard on us to get wins. But it's still important for us to get comfortable defending the way we need to."

The only ingredient that's missing now is the offense to go along with it. It can't be one or the other. The Blackhawks have scored only nine goals in their last five games. If they can find a way to put them both together they can be a dangerous team. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, they have just seven games to show it and zero margin for error.

At the very least, it's something the Blackhawks can feel good about going into the summer that the biggest hole in their game has finally started to come around.

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive with overtime win over Avalanche

Four takeaways: Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive with overtime win over Avalanche

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Duncan Keith saves the day

The Blackhawks needed this. After losing three in a row, anything less than a win on Sunday would've been the nail in the coffin on the team's playoff hopes with seven games remaining.

But Keith's overtime heroics saved the day for the Blackhawks, who live to fight another day. It was the third goal in nine games for Keith, who has six goals on the season. He had two goals in 82 games last season. Surely this offensive hot streak — by defensemen standards — feels good.

"I don't score too many overtime goals," Keith said. "[Nathan] MacKinnon was coming down and I'm just trying not to get embarrassed there because he's a pretty good player. And he kind of fell and I had the jump on him, and I was thinking he might try to poke it on my backhand. But I saw that he wasn't going to have enough room, so I just tried to slam it at the net as hard as I could. It hit the net and luckily it went in."

2. Blackhawks keep playoff hopes alive (barely)

Saturday's regulation loss to the Avalanche was a gut punch. Allowing the Avalanche to pick up a point in this one wasn't ideal. But the Blackhawks need to take care of their own business first, and earning two points was the ultimate goal.

The projected playoff cut is roughly 87 points. The Blackhawks have 76 with seven games left. They need 11 out of a possible 14 points in their final seven games to hit that mark. Their odds are bleak. But they're hanging on by a thread.

"This is huge," Keith said. "I think it was pretty much a must-win game. Especially after losing the last one against these guys. I thought we played a really good game tonight as a team. Obviously nothing's perfect but finding a way to get those two points. We're taking it one game at a time. We'll enjoy it, move on and know we still got our work cut out for us. Our theme of taking it one game at a time is a good way to approach it."

3. Loading up 12-19-88

Entering Sunday's game, the Blackhawks had scored only seven goals in their past four games. It's been their toughest stretch of the second half in the goal scoring department after it came so easy to them for months. The lack of power play is one of the main reasons for that.

To help change things up, Jeremy Colliton loaded up the top line with Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and tried to exploit some matchups by having the last change at home. And why not? They've accounted for 45.5 percent of the team's goals this season, and that strategy worked so well for Colorado earlier in the year. They didn't score, but they were very effective together.

In 16:19 of even-strength time, the trio controlled 65.9 percent of the shot attempts, 80 percent of the scoring chances and 80 percent of the high-danger chances, according to naturalstattrick.com.

"Those are the three guys that put the puck in the net the most," Colliton said. "We've been having trouble, so I think throw them together and that's probably the best opportunity to create some offense. I realize they didn't score, but they were really good."

4. Staying optimistic

The Blackhawks know it's an uphill battle to make the playoffs. But until the math says they're officially out of contention, they're going to continue fighting and clawing for that final wildcard spot.

There's still some optimism inside the locker room that they can make a run because they've shown in the past that they can do it. A big game against Arizona on Tuesday is a chance to strengthen it.

 

"We have a big belief in our group," Artem Anisimov said. "We just need to get it done."

Said Keith: "We know it's tough. We look at the standings and stuff, but at the same time I think our focus has to be in the moment. The standings are what they are, our focus needs to be one game at a time and just control that. So good game tonight and good that we got the two points, but we need to go into Arizona and play just as good as a game, if not better, to beat those guys."

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