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."

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks offense finally opens things up as Patrick Kane starts streaking

USA Today

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks offense finally opens things up as Patrick Kane starts streaking

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Charlie Roumeliotis break down the changes made to the Hawks defensive zone coverage (1:50) and Patrick Kane’s current points streak (7:30). They also discuss how most of the players that have been scratched recently have had bounce-back efforts (11:20), as well as the improved play of Erik Gustafsson (18:12) and both special teams units (20:16). Plus, the debut of “Checkpoint Charlie," where Charlie gives us a taste of life on the road and his encounter with Chris Rock’s brother (29:00).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 


Blackhawks Talk Podcast


Jeremy Colliton explains schematic change and why Blackhawks made it

Jeremy Colliton explains schematic change and why Blackhawks made it

The Blackhawks made a schematic change after their four-game road trip and they've seen the benefits of it immediately. They're 2-0-1 in their past three games and have scored 12 goals over that stretch.

We broke down on Monday what changes were made systematically and how it has freed up the offense, but head coach Jeremy Colliton elaborated on it Tuesday and explained the reasoning behind the decision.

"All it is is, our weak side forward, we pushed him up higher in defensive zone coverage," Colliton said. "Before, we had four low a lot of times, to try and overload in certain situations. That's good, it gets you out of D-zone, but the problem is when you win the puck back, a lot of times you're very close together and it's harder to make clean plays, it's harder to exit with space to make plays. So we were having trouble entering the zone.

"There's been a lot of talk about how we have been dumping too many pucks in. Well, we're not trying to dump the puck in, but when you're attacking and you don't have numbers, you don't have space in behind, you have to, you're forced too. I think we're doing a much better job of getting from D-zone clean, because we have a forward a little bit higher, there's a little more space, it happens quicker. And then I think we've done a good job with the low three [of] someone jumping by and then we can create a little bit more space off the rush and we don't have to chip it in. We can enter clean, make some plays and I think the guys are doing very well."

Patrick Kane, who has erupted for seven points (four goals, three assists) in the past three games since the change, sees the change opening up more opportunities for the Blackhawks on offense.

"I think a lot of us probably stressed that there wasn't as much flow to it, for whatever reason that was," Kane said. "They made a change and all of a sudden it seems like we have more options coming out of our end, we have more motion, more speed coming out of our end, which is always a good thing."

The Blackhawks' dump-in rate, as Colliton noted, has been much higher this season and it’s noteworthy because they generated a lot of their offense off the rush last season from mid-December and on. But what we didn’t know was the exact reason why the Blackhawks altered the way they entered the offensive zone.

Aside from the obvious answer of cutting down on neutral zone turnovers and limiting the amount of odd-man rushes against, Colliton notes the Blackhawks were forced to dump it in more because they weren’t entering the zone with numbers. The defensive scheme didn’t really allow them to.

But with the recent fundamental change, the Blackhawks have more options to exit their own zone cleanly, pick up speed through the neutral zone and do what they do best: by carrying the puck in and having more freedom to create offense. It’s something the coaching staff and players discussed with each other, and the consensus is it will maximize the talent of this group.

"We kind of felt it was time," Colliton said. "I mean, we're always talking with them for sure and guys, they want to score more. They want to produce, guys want to make plays. And so we're just trying to find the balance. We want to continue to work on being good defensively, but we've got to score more than them. I think we can still hold onto those defensive gains we've made and score more goals."

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