Healthy and rested, Blackhawks ready for busy final stretch

Healthy and rested, Blackhawks ready for busy final stretch

The Blackhawks filtered out of the Johnny's IceHouse West locker room on Wednesday. Some of the veterans couldn't gotten one more day off but, after three days off for some, Wednesday was back to work.

"I think they know why: you don't want to be too stiff the next day," Marian Hossa said. "But it was nice to take a break because you know it's going to be game after game after game [now]. There won't be much of a break."

The mini-vacation, if you could call it that, is over. Starting with Thursday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks will play 17 games over the final 31 days of their regular season. Just about every hockey player would rather play than practice, and the Blackhawks are no different. They also thrive off that schedule. Factor that in with a just-about fully healthy lineup, something that's been rare this season, and the Blackhawks are looking to finish as strong as possible.

The Blackhawks enter Thursday night's game one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the Western Conference lead. Even with a few injuries prior to the break they found ways to win. Now with nearly everyone back – including Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of whom are expected to play Thursday – the Blackhawks can use these last 17 games as their personal playoff primer.

"We have some different looks again," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We can always mix pairs on the back end. We have the four lines that have been the best part of our game that consistency has helped us in making other teams defend, generating an attack, chances and drawing penalties. That's been the difference in our team game. We're probably looking to make some moves up front to see what's best for matchups and line combinations as we're going along. It's not like we're going to be experimenting but at least there'll be some things we'll be sorting out."

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The Blackhawks resume play with defensive depth that rivals the 2015 team. Oduya feels ready to go after the few extra days and returning to the United Center as a Blackhawk again – "I've been here with a different team but of course it'll be special. The fans are on your side instead of, not against you, but on the other side," he said. It's a different mix than in 2015 overall – the Blackhawks' younger players have been a big boost to this year's team. But Oduya said, regardless of lineup, everyone knows what's expected this time of year.

"I've seen it mostly from the outside but watching some of the games, I think it's as good as any team. That said, we know there's a long road," Oduya said. "We want to play good hockey games. That's what you have in your mind."

The Blackhawks are in the regular-season home stretch. They're healthy again and have the Wild in their sights. For a team that started the last postseason on the road, playing their best hockey and taking the division are top priorities.

"It's something to shoot for right now. It's something we set out to do every year is try to win the division. It's a tough one to win but we have a chance to do that," Patrick Kane said. "We have 17 games left here. We might as well try and do it."

How Blackhawks are trying to stay positive despite postseason-high 12 iron shots 

How Blackhawks are trying to stay positive despite postseason-high 12 iron shots 

Goal posts apparently aren't kind to the city of Chicago in the playoffs. (Nobody needs a reminder of the double-doink).

So if you hear a ringing sound, you’re not alone. 

The Blackhawks are six games into their postseason run and have hit 12 iron shots so far — 10 off the post, two off the crossbar. Twelve! That’s an average of two per game and a pace of 164 across an 82-game season. For reference, they hit the iron 58 times — 48 off the post, 10 off the crossbar — in 70 games during the regular season.

No team has hit more iron than the Blackhawks (12) since the NHL's 24-team Return to Play tournament started and it's not even close. The next highest? Toronto at six. An incredible gap.

"It's always tough hitting the post," said Drake Caggiula, who's hit one crossbar this postseason. "You’re close to scoring a goal but that’s hockey. It’s all about bounces. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t, you've just got to stick with it. It's just something where you've got to keep shooting the puck and trust that you're going to get your chances and make sure that you try and capitalize. But hitting the post is never a fun feeling unless it's going in the net. We've just got to make sure it doesn’t discourage us."

Here's a list of where each team sits when it comes to iron shots, through Thursday's games:

  • 12: Blackhawks
  • 6: Toronto
  • 5: Boston
  • 4: Calgary, Colorado, Columbus, Montreal, N.Y. Rangers, Vegas
  • 3: Florida, N.Y. Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
  • 2: Carolina, Dallas, Edmonton, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg
  • 1: Vancouver
  • 0: Arizona, Minnesota, St. Louis

The Blackhawks hit five posts in Game 3 against the Edmonton Oilers, but it was easier to swallow because it came in a win. It wasn't so easy in a Game 2 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday.

Patrick Kane, who leads all skaters this postseason with three shots off the post, hit another one with 43 seconds left in the first period on Thursday when the Blackhawks were trailing 2-0. He beat Robin Lehner five-hole, but the puck rang off the pipe and bounced out. 

You could see the frustration in his face:

The Blackhawks did, however, get a nice break on Dominik Kubalik's power-play goal that tied the game at 2-2. His shot went off the inside of the post and in.

But the one that kept Chicago awake is the crossbar shot in overtime. 

Just 1:53 into extra time, Dylan Strome fired a 35-foot wrist shot from the right faceoff circle and rang it off the bottom part of the crossbar. He lifted his hands in the air thinking it was a goal. It was centimeters away from going bar down but bounced out instead.

The Blackhawks are certainly getting their chances. It's challenging to stick with it when the puck luck isn't going your way, but you have to earn your bounces and the Blackhawks must keep pushing through. That's the message.

"We've had our chances," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Sometimes it's like that. The key is, how long can we stick with it? How long can we be persistent when we face adversity? We've faced some adversity here over the first couple games. Do we have the character to overcome it? It's an opportunity for our guys.

"You play all year to be in these games, so now we're here and we've faced some adversity. So what? Just keep playing and believe in what we're doing and believe in the guys in the room and we're going to give them a run."

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Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner remains unbeaten with Vegas Golden Knights

Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner remains unbeaten with Vegas Golden Knights

On Thursday in Game 2, the Blackhawks tested Robin Lehner more than they did in Game 1 of the first round Stanley Cup Playoff series, when he only had to save 19 of 20 shots.

The Hawks were able to put 25 pucks on the Golden Knights' net, with three getting past Lehner to take the game to overtime where Vegas would triumph to take a 2-0 series lead.

"It was a little bit of a weird game," Lehner said following his Game 2 win. "There was not that much to do and I thought they had some good chances. I thought that Chicago played really well. Everyone keeps saying they're (the) underdog, but you look at their team: the experience, the skill... it's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out there. It's a lot of skill and they're world class players, so when they get opportunities it's hard. I got to look at the tape, I think I can be a little bit better, but a win's a win."

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner's birthday cake is ureal

With the victory, Lehner remains unbeaten in the 2020 postseason (4-0) and unbeaten as a Golden Knight. 

The 29-year-old netminder went 3-0-0 with 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage with the Knights during the regular season ahead of the NHL Pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. 

Related: Robin Lehner opens up on getting traded by Blackhawks

Lehner was traded from Chicago to Vegas ahead of Feb. 24's trade deadline. He was 16-10-5 as a Hawk this season with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage prior to the move.

Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champ with the Pittsburgh Penguins, may have lost the starter job to Lehner, at least for now. Fleury was only in net for one Golden Knights' round-robin game, with Lehner starting the rest of the postseason contests so far.

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