With injury and illness, Blackhawks’ latest break is welcomed

With injury and illness, Blackhawks’ latest break is welcomed

When the Blackhawks entered their bye week on Feb. 12 they were ready to do so.

At that point, it was more of a fatigue factor. The Blackhawks had played 57 games entering the bye and, despite winning five in a row after several weeks of up-and-down play, the rest was welcome.

On Sunday the Blackhawks start another respite, this one for four days that will include a practice or two. This time around, the break isn't so much needed as perhaps necessary.

The Blackhawks are rolling right now in terms of results; their 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday was their 12th in their last 13 games. But they've been hit by injuries and illness the last several games, so their latest break couldn't have come at a better time.

The break is good for Johnny Oduya, who will get a few more days to get up to speed following an ankle injury that sidelined him for a month. Same for Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper body), who's been out since Feb. 23. It's good for Nick Schmaltz, whose illness kept him out the last two games. It's good for Artem Anisimov, who only missed one game from a lower-body injury but gets to recuperate more.

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Healthy players could use this time, too. Asked about the break following the Blackhawks' 5-3 victory over Nashville on Saturday night, coach Joel Quenneville said, "some will get a couple more days off than the [scheduled] rest." Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, paired together again with Hjalmarsson out, have taken on the brunt of the responsibility and minutes. Patrick Kane's minutes increased some (26 against the New York Islanders on Friday before going back to 17 on Saturday in Nashville). Corey Crawford just returned from illness on Friday but, with Scott Darling sidelined for three weeks, they'll need him at his best.

The Blackhawks have been getting the results but the wear and tear of the season was catching up to them. The four-line rotation was thrown off some. With Oduya and Hjalmarsson both out, the Blackhawks were minus what's expected to be their second defensive pair.

On Thursday the Blackhawks could return to games at their healthiest all season. They'll have to be, because the stretch run won't be easy. In their final 31 days of the regular season (Thursday-April 8), the Blackhawks will play 17 games. The Blackhawks have the four-line rotation they want. They have the defensive setup they want. Breaks don't always come at opportune times but this one is a welcomed one.

"It's been a good stretch for us, fun," Quenneville said. "But enjoy some time off for some guys here and let's come back energized for the last stretch because we're busy."

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

When forward Alex Nylander came to the Blackhawks last offseason in a trade that sent Henri Jokiharju — a young and promising defenseman for Chicago — to the Buffalo Sabres, Blackhawks fans and media were left scratching their heads.

Then, Nylander scored the Hawks' first goal of the season in their first game of the 2019-20 campaign against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague. 

Throughout the season the winger would show flashes of offensive brilliance that occasionally earned him ice time among the Blackhawks' top forwards like Patrick Kane. 

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But as soon as we would feel remorse for doubting the trade and his abilities, Nylander would cough up the puck or hesitate in the midst of a quality scoring chance immediately after. 

The 22-year-old is using the NHL's Return To Play program as an opportunity to show growth and dependability in his game.

Nylander was one of few Hawks that regularly participated in Phase 2's small group voluntary workouts. Teammates are already noticing his game in Phase 3's training camp, which began on Monday.

Related: Why Blackhawks' Phase 3 training camp has had an extra intensity

"Nylander, I thought, looked really good. He’s quick, he’s firing the puck and he’s a lot of fun to play with," Hawks forward Dylan Strome said after Day 2's practice.

When asked about Strome's comments on Wednesday, Alex said he's confident in how he's performed in camp, but wants to reach another level for the Blackhawks' big postseason opportunity. 

"I feel pretty good right now, been getting those skates in before in Phase 2 which was huge. I feel really good here in camp, but I want to be prepared because this is obviously going to be my first playoffs," Nylander said. "Like Stromer said, I started playing really well at the end of the season, especially with Stromer and Kane, good chemistry and stuff like that and kind of building on that and keep it going for the playoffs, it's going to be huge."

The Blackhawks will be playing the Oilers in a best-of-five play-in series for this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs on Aug. 1 in Edmonton. Before the qualifying round starts, the Hawks will take on the St. Louis Blues July 29 in an exhibition game.

"We have huge games there obviously and we just need to be as ready as possible," Nylander said. "It was nice to get to know (teammates) and play with them in Phase 2, so we got to know each other better off the ice and on the ice, so just keep carrying it on every day in training camp and working hard and we'll be ready for the playoffs."

Nylander had 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 65 games with the Hawks before the NHL paused on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Malcolm Subban is preparing for potential 'opportunity of a lifetime'

How Malcolm Subban is preparing for potential 'opportunity of a lifetime'

When Robin Lehner was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights at the NHL trade deadline, you knew the Blackhawks were going to ride Corey Crawford down the stretch as long as they were mathematically in the playoff hunt. And that's exactly what happened.

Malcolm Subban, who was part of the package coming back to Chicago, logged only 70 seconds of ice time in a Blackhawks sweater prior to the March 12 pause after being called upon for a brief relief appearance. But his role could be expanding in a significant way ahead of the NHL’s Return to Play tournament.

Crawford has been absent for the first three days of training camp after being ruled "unfit to play," which has opened the door for Subban to potentially serve as the Blackhawks' starter for their qualifying round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers if Crawford isn't ready.

"It could end up being the opportunity of a lifetime," Subban said. "For me, it's just taking it day by day and continuing to work hard and making sure I'm ready if I get an opportunity."

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Head coach Jeremy Colliton made it clear on Day 1 that it will be an open competition as the Blackhawks prepare for the possibility of life without Crawford. Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Matt Tomkins will have as equal a shot as Subban to make their case, with all four rotating in and out with the NHL regulars' group during camp.

"We have a situation now where we’ve talked about it being open competition for a spot, whether that’s the starting position or the backup when we start come playoff time," Colliton said. "I think the work ethic from all of those guys has been good and that makes us feel good about the preparation they’re doing to take hold of that opportunity."

But Subban may have a slight leg up on the competition. He was one of only four Blackhawks — along with Alex DeBrincat, Alex Nylander and Patrick Kane — who participated in Phase 2 of voluntary workouts at Fifth Third Arena from start to finish and has the most career starts (60) among the four goaltenders.

Despite all that, Subban still feels like he has a long way to go before getting his timing right. He's taking full advantage of every practice session with goaltending coach Jimmy Waite and ironing out the fundamentals of his game because coaches weren’t allowed on the ice during Phase 2.

But Subban is slowly working his way back into form and getting more comfortable with each practice.

“We were skating for three or four weeks and I thought I was back on the little small things,” Subban said. “And then got out with Jimmy for the first time and realized I still had a lot of stuff to work on. But just getting out there and trying to correct those little bad habits that form and also getting back into game shape. Every skate will help.“