Blackhawks

Hawks stand up to physical Blues for big win

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Hawks stand up to physical Blues for big win

This victory over a feisty St. Louis Blues squad showed off the Blackhawks' skill, and a fair share of toughness and grit, too. It was something that hadn't been on display for a while.

"It's never easy in this building, but we played a solid road game, where everybody chips in, and special teams were big tonight," said Marian Hossa, who scored two special teams goals in the 5-2 win at Scottrade Center Saturday night.

Hossa's shorthanded goal in the second period turned what might have been a potential 3-1 deficit into a 2-2 tie, and once it got to that point, Patrick Sharp and Hossa scored the next pair - sandwiched around the second intermission - on the man-advantage.

It cooled off a hard-charging St. Louis team that had crept to within two points of the Hawks in the Central by going 8-1-3 under new bench boss Ken Hitchcock. And individually, it cooled off goalie Brian Elliott, who hadn't given up more than two goals in a game this season, while leading the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage.

Those two power-play goals, coupled with a 3-for-3 penalty kill (albeit against the NHL's worst power play), helped complete a hard-fought, much-needed four-point weekend.

"We knew we were gonna have to weather the storm," said captain Jonathan Toews, who was among five Hawks stars (Hossa, Sharp, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith) who drove this victory. "Killing some penalties, finding a way to protect the lead and play with urgency. It's a big win against any team, but especially against this team."

Especially, because, St. Louis plays it physical against the Hawks, and while the official hit totals seemed a little low for both teams -- 17-12 in favor of the Blues -- the Hawks gave back enough of what they took.

Referees Tom Kowal and Francois St. Laurent let each team push the envelope until things started getting carried away after Sharp's goal made it 3-2 with under five minutes left in the middle frame. On top of that, those that may not have highlighted the scoresheet pitched in with solid play in all three zones, with few exceptions.

"I thought across the board, we played excellent," head coach Joel Quenneville said. "We got contributions from everybody. Expectations were met. That short-handed goal really took us off."

The beneficiary of that solid, consistent defensive coverage was Ray Emery, who wasn't too bad himself in improving to 3-0-0 in his career against the Blues. What a difference two weeks makes after he had to dig the puck out of the net behind him on seven of Edmonton's nine goals in his last start on Nov. 19. That night north of the border, Emery was often hung out to try by a lackluster effort in front of him.

"That's a while ago, that last one," Emery said. "Those happen once or twice a year where it gets away early. You just gotta bounce back and not let it happen a second time in a row."

He didn't, and the team didn't after being the first victim of Hitchcock's Blues. It helped send about half the crowd home happy, as the Hawks enjoyed a big traveling contingent.

"It was nice to make it worth the trip for our fans here," Toews concluded.

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."