Blackhawks

'Razor sharp' Crawford at his best for Blackhawks

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'Razor sharp' Crawford at his best for Blackhawks

SUNRISE, Fla. Corey Crawford said he saw just about all of the shots the Florida Panthers fired at him on Thursday night.

Good thing his game was as sharp as his vision.

Crawford stopped 41 of 43 shots and Patrick Kane had the game-winning shootout goal in the Blackhawks 3-2 triumph over the Panthers at BankAtlantic Center. It was another tight one for the Blackhawks, who are now 8-2-2 this season.

And coach Joel Quenneville said Crawford plenty of the accolades.

To me, at the end of the night it was a goalie win. He kept us in there, he said. He knows a lot of the guys (around the league) now and should be improving in all aspects, but he was razor-sharp tonight.

Our guys were letting me see the puck, pushing guys out of the way, Crawford said. I saw pretty much every shot tonight so that makes a difference.

Sean ODonnell, who played more than 21 minutes in Duncan Keiths absence, said that high number of shots is still unacceptable.

That team there, its an improved team. It was good Corey did see a lot but you still dont want that, he said. If its 32 or 33 (shots), thats a more reasonable number. When you get in the 40s youre playing with fire a little bit.

And it did hurt them late when Ed Jovanovski scored with just 2:04 remaining in regulation.

Crawford had to be at his best. The Blackhawks had a 2-0 lead early in the second period, thanks to Jonathan Toews and Panthers killer Marian Hossa he now has 31 goals in 48 career games against Florida. But then the Panthers kept pushing until Jovanovski tied it late.

Were up 2-0, and I dont know if we think its going to be a blowout or not. But thats a good team over there, said Kane, who beat Florida rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom five-hole on the shootout winner.

The Blackhawks have had some close ones this season. Quenneville figured this one, against an improved Florida team, would be hard fought. Once again, Crawford came up big.

Awesome game. The best player on our team, no doubt about it, Kane said of Crawford. I dont know why we played like that tonight but Crawford stood tall. Thats why hes proven time and time again he should be in there. Good for him.

Cat killer

Hossa continues to be the Panthers worst nightmare. He now has 30 goals and 58 points in 48 career games, moving him to fourth-best all-time against Florida.

What is it about him and the Panthers?

It could be the air here, Hossa said to laughs. Whatever it is, too bad we dont play more games here.

Briefly

Keith (left hand) was out Thursday against Florida. His status for Friday nights game in Tampa Bay was still uncertain.

Quenneville would not say who would be in goal Friday against the Lightning; he said backup Ray Emery could play.

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Blackhawks 2018-19 season grades: Coaching

Jeremy Colliton had difficult shoes to fill. That's an understatement.

He replaced a three-time Stanley Cup winner and the second-winningest NHL coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville. And Colliton jumped in at the age of 33 just days after he and his wife welcomed their third child.

To make things even more complicated, Colliton took over as Blackhawks head coach just one month into the season and had to implement some new components of his system on the fly. That took a while for the veterans who had been playing one way for the last 10-plus years to adjust.

Colliton's No. 1 priority when he came to Chicago was to help fix a power-play unit that ranked third-worst during the 2017-18 campaign with a 16.0 percent success rate and 26th through the first 15 games of the 2018-19 season with a 14.0 percentage. It wasn't getting any better.

But from the day he got hired and on, the Blackhawks finished with the seventh-best power play (21.8 percent). It dried up down the stretch, but that was after a two-month span where it was converting at nearly a 40 percent clip. It was bound for regression.

The penalty kill, however, is something that stayed in the basement of the NHL all season long. They were 23rd under Quenneville through the first 15 games (76.6 percent) and finished last with a 71.7 percent kill rate under Colliton in the remaining 67 games. You can overcome a struggling power play, but it's almost impossible to overcome a bad penalty kill.

At 5-on-5 play under Quenneville this season, the Blackhawks had an expected goals for percentage of 45.8, a scoring chances for percentage of 49.2 and high-danger chances for percentage of 43.6, according to naturalstattrick.com. Under Colliton, they had an expected GF percentage of 45.8, SCF percentage of 46.9 and HDCF percentage of 42.6.

The sample sizes obviously aren't the same (15 games vs. 67) and, as we mentioned above, it took a couple of months for the Blackhawks to really get comfortable with Colliton's defensive structure. They certainly went through growing pains.

But with the Blackhawks expected to be active this summer in free agency and adding players that fit their new head coach's style, coupled with the fact that Colliton will have a full training camp to iron out the kinks and incorporate even more elements into his system, and the team could hit the ground running for the 2019-20 campaign rather than playing catch-up all season long. 

"I think as you go you get more comfortable, you gain confidence, you go through experiences and deal with situations that come up and they're challenging at times," Colliton said. "You get through it. And then the next time stuff comes up, you feel more confident, you feel better about what you're doing. I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress. It took longer than we all would have liked, but I think I'm a better coach now than when I walked in, and I'm going to use that going forward. 

"There's going to be challenging circumstances next year too where maybe doesn't come easy. But I think all the best coaches get better all the time. Every day they're bringing new ideas and new energy and looking outside for inspiration. That's what I expect to."

Coaching: B-

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What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

What Ian Mitchell returning to college means for Blackhawks

After falling short of a Frozen Four championship with Denver, the attention in Chicago turned to defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell and whether he'd sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. It felt like it was only a matter of time before he would do so, but as the days passed, there seemed to be growing speculation that that may not be the case.

On Wednesday, Mitchell made it official and announced his decision to return to college for his junior season by releasing this statement on Denver's website:

"In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready mentally or physically to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player and as a team we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season."

So what does this mean for the Blackhawks?

For one, it immediately eliminates Mitchell from the equation of making the 2019-20 Opening Day roster even though he might be the most pro-ready of the three top Blackhawks defensemen prospects that haven't appeared in an NHL game yet (Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist). It's probably a wise move for his long-term development.

But with Beaudin and Boqvist also in the same boat as far as maybe needing some more time to develop, it's entirely possible all three won't be in the NHL next season. Which is fine. The Blackhawks have always preached patience when it comes to prospects developing at their own pace.

But it puts the Blackhawks in a position the following season where they could be breaking in several young defensemen at once depending on where they're at in their timelines. Maybe that's a good problem to have. It also depends on the number of roster spots available, which is a conversation for a different day.

In going back to college, Mitchell, a second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in 2017, pushes back his eligibility to sign with the Blackhawks to the spring of 2020. And yes, it's too early to start wondering whether the Blackhawks could lose his signing rights if he returns to college for a senior season and elects to go to free agency. 

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