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Stalberg's hat trick helps Blackhawks end skid

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Stalberg's hat trick helps Blackhawks end skid

Updated: Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 10:55 p.m.

Viktor Stalberg had come close to getting hat tricks against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this season. But in two previous games here he had to be happy with two-goal performances in each.

On Tuesday, he got his trifecta.

Stalberg notched his first career hat trick and Corey Crawford stopped 32 of 34 in the Blackhawks 5-2 victory over the Blue Jackets. It was a big night for Stalberg against a team hes pounced on; seven of his 12 goals this season have come against Columbus.

Ben Smith and Dave Bolland also scored for the Blackhawks, who had a scary moment in the first when Jonathan Toews took a Duncan Keith shot to the head. The shot hit Toews in the helmet, then hit off the post. Toews went to the locker room for a few minutes and came back with two sets of stitches above his left eye.

Its one of those things; it hits me in the face and it doesnt go in, joked Toews who still has stitches in his lip from the Edmonton game last week.

Stalbergs second goal proved to be the game-winner, and hes now recorded that all three times Columbus has played here this season.

It was something I had a couple of chances before to get and it hasnt happened, so its a great feeling obviously, Stalberg said. I wish it was like that every night. Hopefully I can keep it going against some other teams. But playing them it seems like Im getting a lot of chances and the puck is finding me a lot out there.

Stalberg completed his hat trick by chasing down an empty-net opportunity with 1:40 remaining.

Ive never seen him skate so fast on the empty netter, Jamal Mayers said. I mean hes fast but that was really fast. He wanted that hat trick.

The Blackhawks penalty kill also came up big on Tuesday. Steve Montador and Mayers both got instigator penalties for their respective fights against Jared Boll, and Montador was also assessed an unsportsmanlike. But the Blackhawks went 5 for 5 on the kill and Bolland scored a short-handed effort early in the second.

That made a huge difference, Toews said. We know its going to be a big part of us winning some tight games, and it couldve been much different tonight if we werent on top of our game there.

The Blackhawks got the special teams they needed on one end and the offense they needed on the other.

Six minutes were short handed (early) and we did an outstanding job of killing. It was effective for us coming out of there clean, coach Joel Quenneville said. Our power play needs to be better. But there are some good things in our game that were pleased with.

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.