Blackhawks

Late Blackhawks comeback falls short

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Late Blackhawks comeback falls short

PITTSBURGH, Pa. The Chicago Blackhawks final 20 minutes was exactly what they were looking for against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately, the first 40 werent.

Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg scored, but the Blackhawks lost Marcus Kruger for the final two periods to injury and the game to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-2 on Tuesday night. It was the Blackhawks first regulation loss in the month of December, and denied them at least a point for the first time in their last nine games.

I dont know what we were playing like in the first 40 minutes, said Stalberg, who also assisted on Toews goal. We basically handed them two points tonight.

But the bigger concern was Kruger. The center was hit hard near the boards by Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland about midway through the first period. Replays showed that Engelland appeared to leave his feet and hit the Blackhawks center in the head with his forearm.

(Kruger) was on the bench to start the second. A couple of times I had to call him and he didnt end up getting out there, coach Joel Quenneville said. Hes OK now. A high hit, a tough area, he was in a tough spot.

John Scott came to Krugers defense, fighting and bloodying Engelland. Quenneville said Scott did the right thing, but Scott was nevertheless given a two-minute instigator and a 10-minute misconduct. That gave the Pens a power play, which Chris Kunitz converted for a 1-0 lead.

Weve got to find a way to kill that for him, Stalberg said of Scott. John does what hes supposed to do and stands up for a guy, so it was good to see that.

Scott said Im always going to stand up for my teammates. Anybody else on this team wouldve done the same thing.

But the Blackhawks were nevertheless down, as they spent too much of the first 40 minutes in the penalty box. Pittsburgh went on seven power plays, although they scored on just that Scott one. Nevertheless, the Penguins would turn that 1-0 lead into a 3-0 advantage by the end of the second period. James Neal and Tyler Kennedy added the other two Pens goals.

Then the Blackhawks woke up offensively in the third. Toews scored just 49 seconds into the final frame and Stalberg added his goal about five minutes later. The Blackhawks outshot the Penguins 19-4 in the final 20 minutes, and hit a few posts, too.

The Blackhawks final shot came on a power play with about 91 seconds remaining in regulation, but they werent able to convert.

The Blackhawks biggest player came to a teammates defense. And the Blackhawks nearly came back from the first 40 so-so minutes. The former couldnt be avoided. The latter couldve been.

We won the third but its frustrating we couldnt do that for a full 60 minutes, Stalberg said. We have to find a way to be more prepared. We cant start like that against a team like this. Theyre too good and theyre going to take advantage of us.

Briefly

Brent Seabrook played after being hit from behind on Sunday. He played just over 23 minutes, with six blocked shots and three shots on goal.

Marian Hossas secondary assist on Stalbergs goal extended his point streak to six games.

Patrick Sharps point streak was snapped at nine games.

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.