Blackhawks

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

Corey Crawford remembers his early days with the Blackhawks, the times where he was working his tail off in Rockford to get a call-up or hoping he would be the one they would choose to stay out of training camp. The thought would creep into his head: “maybe I never get there.”

“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t tell you that but there were a bunch of times,” Crawford said with a smile. 

Crawford had a lot of good times, a lot of valuable experiences with the IceHogs. But he always kept his eye on the main goal: making the NHL. Twice he’s been named an NHL All-Star. Twice he’s been a winner or shared the William Jennings Trophy. Twice he’s won Stanley Cups. He can look back and smile now at those days when he wasn’t sure if he’d latch onto a team.

Making the NHL is tough. Staying there can be even tougher. The pressures and expectations are enormous, especially the higher you go in the NHL draft. Be it patience, willing to change your game or the need to try over with another organization, players do whatever it takes to get that opportunity.

“The mental side of the game for a lot of these draft choices or these on-the-cusp, on-the-edge players is the hardest part,” Rockford coach Ted Dent said. “The physical aspect, keeping yourself in shape and being a good hockey player isn’t the battle. It’s usually the mental side of things, the expectations, the pressure they put on themselves, maybe their families, their agents or whatever comes with it. It’s a side that gets overlooked a little bit.”

“I did whatever it would take.”

Patrick Sharp spent a few years at the University of Vermont but for him, his career choice was clear: he was going to be a pro hockey player no matter what. Coming up through the Philadelphia Flyers’ system (Sharp was their 95th overall pick in the 2001 draft), finding an opportunity was tough the early 2000s. The Flyers had their goal scorers – John LeClair, Michal Handzus, Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick were among them. So to get a chance Sharp changed his game and came up as a fourth-line checker.

“I looked at the team I had in Philly – couple of Hall of Famers, a lot of all-stars. I realized that, although I was an AHL all-star and I was putting up points, I probably wasn’t going to do with the Flyers. I had to do what I could to make that team,” Sharp said. “Be more physical, fighting, I did whatever it would take.

“Every player has been a star at some level of their career. That’s why they’re in the situation they’re in,” Sharp said. “Each player has a different path, a different role. It’s important for that player to have communication and find out what they want from him. What’s going to help him get to that next level and apply it? It’s easy at a young age to think, ‘I’ve got a good game.’ It’s not always the case. It’s a 200-foot game, special teams. Communication’s the key.”

Jack Skille had a similar situation. Skille was highly touted coming out of the U.S. National Development Program and the Blackhawks selected him seventh overall in the 2005 draft. He left the University of Wisconsin-Madison early and would later sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. For years, Skille said people tried to tell him he’d need a different game to stay in the NHL, but it took him time to realize that. Now a regular starter for the Vancouver Canucks in more of a checking role, Skille said he’s happy and having fun with the game.

“I think that was the biggest adjustment coming here and in the role I play: [realizing] less is more. It took me a long time, as a young kid, to realize that. It took a lot of mistakes over my career and a lot of growing pains to finally get to the point where I was like, what everyone’s telling me, less is more and they’re right. I finally bought into it and it’s been working,” Skille said. “It’s an adjustment because you’re used to sitting there, being one of the go-to guys and out there every single shift. But there’s something to be said for guys who don’t get frequent shifts out there and keep playing the same way with a lot of energy.”

The sounding board

Dent’s office is in a perfect spot at BMO Harris Center, located between the IceHogs’ locker room and the players’ lounge. From his office, Dent can gauge what mood his players are in, and which ones are down and could use a talk.

This is as much part of a minor-league coach’s job as the coaching itself. The Blackhawks’ organization has a mental skills coach who is sometimes in Rockford but, for the day-to-day, Dent is that guy.

“You try to form that bond and relationship with them. For them to get their feelings off their chest is a big thing because they hold so many feelings in, in a group setting,” Dent said. “You want to be that strong, tough guy like all hockey players. But inside a lot of them have a lot of emotion that needs to get out. You try to be that sounding board for them and let them get some things out one-on-one.”

Crawford had his ears to bend when he was in Rockford – at that time Bill Peters was head coach and Dent was assistant. Crawford said those talks helped but ultimately, it came down to him.

“They’re not going to be there when you go home. They’re not going to make choices for you. You really have to learn that on your own,” Crawford said. “Maybe [you get pep talks] a little bit from your teammates but a lot of those guys, too, were guys I was growing up with and going through all that stuff with. It’s just one of those things where you get a feel for how you’re supposed to think and to battle through things and try to stay positive.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“I expected to be in the NHL this year…”

Michael Latta was happy when he was traded to the IceHogs in January. He’s getting more minutes, more opportunity than he was in his short stay with the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ minor-league team. But there’s no doubt Latta, who spent a few seasons with the Washington Capitals, wants another chance at the NHL.

“I expected to be in the NHL this year with LA. I really did. And it didn’t work out,” said Latta, who was selected 72nd overall by the Nashville Predators in 2009. “But I believe I can play in the NHL; I can be a factor in the NHL. So I’m really hoping I can get a chance up there just to show [the Blackhawks] what I can do. They don’t know me very well so it’d be nice to go up there and get a shot. Just get a chance to show them and see what they think.”

At the same time, Latta wants to play as much as possible. For bubble guys like him, that doesn’t always happen in the NHL. In Rockford he’s playing a lot of minutes, getting a lot of opportunities, and he’s taking advantage of it.

“I’d played eight minutes a night, which is fine. You’re living the dream, playing in the NHL. But I was excited to come down and get my scoring touch back, get some ice time, some power play time,” Latta said. “To come here and get it and start playing, it’s been special. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m just really enjoying it again. Hockey’s fun again.”

It’s not easy to make the NHL but the opportunity is worth it for many. For those trying to latch on, or latch on again, the work continues. For those who made it, there’s the appreciation for what it took to get here.

“Every experience teaches you something, even if it’s negative. The negative ones seem to stick with people more and that’s where you get to learn things,” Crawford said. “It’s tough, especially when there are stretches when you don’t get a sniff at coming up and it seems like you’re going to be there for the rest of your career. Then there are other times you’re really confident and you feel you should be in the NHL. That’s all about learning, learning to stay level headed and not get too down or too high. Just work hard, have fun.”

'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

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USA TODAY

'It can go one of two ways': Blackhawks mindset going into home-and-home series with Avalanche

The last time the Blackhawks and Avalanche met, it was viewed as the most important regular season game to date for the Blackhawks because it was a chance to finally pull inside the playoff picture and push the Avalanche out of it. That was Feb. 22.

Fast forward one month and the Blackhawks are approaching a home-and-home weekend series with the Avalanche, who are currently sitting in the second wildcard spot with 78 points. The Blackhawks are at 74 with a game in hand. They have an opportunity to make things real interesting with exactly two weeks left in the season.

“It can go one of two ways,” Jonathan Toews said. “So obviously we want to play our best hockey and make sure we’re in control of who gets the points in these next two.”

The Blackhawks were encouraged with how they played in that Feb. 22 against Colorado. They led in shot attempts (73-47), shots on goal (44-31), scoring chances (40-23) and high-danger chances (20-13), according to naturalstattrick.com, except the category that mattered most and that's the scoreboard (5-3 loss).

"It's one of our better efforts of the year," coach Jeremy Colliton said after the game. "Sometimes the results don't go your way, but the challenge is to reproduce [at] that level and I think if we do, we'll get our fair share of points."

The Blackhawks are hoping a similar performance will lead to the desire result this time around. These are a pair of four-point swings that mean so much at this time of year. Colliton even acknowledged on Friday that Corey Crawford could start in both games, which would be his first back-to-back action since Nov. 4 and 5 in 2017.

The Avalanche have won three in a row, and have outscored their opponents 9-2 in that span. They're coming in hot. The Blackhawks have scored only five goals in their past three games, so they're looking to end that offensive dry spell.

The good news? The Blackhawks are 8-3-0 in their last 11 road games and have a plus-6 goal differential over that stretch. They clearly have been feeling more comfortable on the road as of late. And maybe it'll help set the tone in an all-important series.

"We’re OK with a track meet, but on our terms," Colliton said. "We want to be the one with the puck and catching them before they’re ready to defend. But they’ve got some good players and we’ve gotta be aware of them when they’re on the ice and try to keep the puck out of their hands. Hopefully — we’re coming off a loss and we know the stakes here — we’ll be really good tomorrow.”

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Four takeaways: Blackhawks can't crack Carter Hart as offense hits bump in the road

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Offense drying up

The Blackhawks are going through a dry spell. They tried sprucing up the lines mid-game on Monday against Vancouver, and reunited Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on the top line on Thursday to help change their fortunes. But no luck.

For the third straight game, the Blackhawks scored two goals or fewer after scoring at least three goals in 23 of their previous 27 games. The power play hasn't been nearly as effective, which has played a big part in that. 

The Blackhawks had their chances at 5-on-5, though. They led in shot attempts (64-34), shots on goal (35-20) and scoring chances (31-17) but lit the lamp only once.

"I think we played pretty good at times and maybe just couldn't find the back of the net," Jonathan Toews said. "Still pretty frustrating that it's another huge opportunity at home and it's two in a row that we fall short. Still wouldn't say we played as good in our own building as we have on the road as of late. So we have to find a way to be better here. Can't allow ourselves to fall short and not get any points anymore."

2. A goaltending duel

Going into Thursday's game, two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford was 5-0-1 with a 1.74 goals against average and .948 save percentage in his past six starts. And 20-year-old rising star Carter Hart had a .961 save percentage in his past two starts. Both of them picked up where they left off.

Crawford turned aside 25 of 27 shots for a save percentage of .926. Hart one-upped him, denying 40 of 41 shots for a save percentage of .976. It was the first time since Nov. 16 that the Blackhawks were held to only one goal, a span of 52 games.

"They locked it down pretty good," Dylan Strome said. "I think we had a decent amount of shots, but not a lot from the slot, but their goalie played good and made some big saves and we couldn’t capitalize. We hit a post. Hit a couple posts. Had some good chances. But unfortunately that didn’t go our way tonight.”

3. Breakout season for No. 56 continues

When Erik Gustafsson signed a two-year extension last March with the Blackhawks worth $1.2 million per year, it didn't sit well with some fans who believed he hadn't done enough to earn that just yet. But looking back on it, it's turned out to be one of the best bargains on the Blackhawks.

After scoring his 15th goal of the season, Gustafsson became the first Blackhawks defenseman to hit that mark since Dustin Byfuglien scored 17 goals during the 2009-10 campaign. And that was a season in which Byfuglien alternated as a defenseman and forward. It's been an impressive year for Gustafsson, and there are still nine games left to add to that total.

4. Controlling your own destiny

Western Conference bubble teams were licking their chops once again on Thursday night. After the Coyotes lost for the third straight time, it opened the door for the Blackhawks to ultimately control their own destiny. And they do.

A victory would've pulled the Blackhawks within two points of the final wildcard spot with a game in hand. This going into a weekend in which the Blackhawks will have a home-and-home against Colorado before heading to Arizona, which makes the upcoming three-game slate even more important.

The playoff race is really just beginning. Every team in the NHL is now in the single digits in the games remaining department. It's now or never.

"We're right in there," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "That's kind of how it is. People think we're out and we find a way to climb back in. That's good. That's good that we've showed that resilience for sure. We'd like to take that next step."

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