Blackhawks

Tanner Kero’s consistency leads to longer stay with Blackhawks

Tanner Kero’s consistency leads to longer stay with Blackhawks

When you're an in-season call-up you know your stay is always up in the air. Maybe you were called up because someone else is hurt and once that player returns to the lineup, you'll probably return to the minors. Or you were called up to give the team a boost, offensively or defensively, and if you don't do it you'll be reassigned.

Tanner Kero is familiar with the scenarios and the uncertainties. When he was recalled for an injured Artem Anisimov just before Christmas, Kero approached it the same way he did when he joined the Blackhawks last season. That was a brief stay. This has become a long-term one.

Kero played in his 37th game on Sunday, his bank-shot pass to Marcus Kruger leading to the latter's empty-net goal in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. Kero has helped fill the bottom-six need at center, has been solid in faceoffs (he's just under 46 percent for the season) and has been part of the team's dependable youth movement this season. Kero said he's appreciated the long-term opportunity but he approaches every game as another audition.

"You're never too sure how long a call-up is going to be, for whatever the reason you're being called up is, but you want to take advantage of that opportunity and work hard every day and try to earn that spot," Kero said. "If you get that consistent ice time you just try to get better, not just be satisfied with that. You try to earn as much as you can, earn their trust and more opportunities."

Coach Joel Quenneville credits Kero with bringing a consistent game.

"He's reliable in a lot of ways," he said. "He puts himself in the right spot, down low in his own end, underneath coverage, and seems to be useful in killing penalties as well. There's more offense in his game that hopefully can come around and add to his reliability defensively. We feel he's done a good job of being a guy in the middle you can use and we like what he's brought to our team in a position where, [earlier in] the year, I don't know if he was forecast to be a regular like that. But he's become more and more reliable, or used more."

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Kero doesn't take anything for granted, even though he's had a stead role this late in the regular season. That pressure is part of what fuels him. 

"That pushes you a little extra every day," he said. "You want to make sure you're doing all the little things right. You never know when the opportunity will be taken away for whatever reason. You want to take advantage of it and make the most of it."

Kero's learned a lot in his time with the Blackhawks. He's more confident in his role, more confident with the puck and knowing when to demand it, hold it or give it up. He's also getting great experience in dealing with the more intense regular-season stretch run, something he'll need if he's part of the postseason (and as of now it looks like he will be). 

"You want to play against those good teams, to play on the road and in different atmospheres and get used to it, get the confidence to play your game in those environments," Kero said. "Heading into the playoffs that's a huge thing, especially playing against teams like Minnesota who are right in the race with you. You want to trust yourself and trust you can play in that situation."

Kero has earned trust this season. What looked like a short-term stay when he first arrived has become a lengthy one. But he'll keep playing like he has to prove himself every game.
 

Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner tandem proving to be exactly what Blackhawks envisioned

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AP

Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner tandem proving to be exactly what Blackhawks envisioned

LAS VEGAS — The first day of NHL free agency is always exciting for hockey fans, particularly the first hour when most of the moves are announced at a rapid rate. Last offseason, the Blackhawks had a quiet few hours before dropping the hammer on the most surprising signing of the day, Robin Lehner, to a one-year deal.

“I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now,” GM Stan Bowman said on July 1. “I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net.”

So does the entire city of Chicago.

More than one month into the 2019-20 season, the goaltending tandem between Crawford and Lehner is exactly what the Blackhawks envisioned it would be. That’s what happens when you pair a Vezina Trophy finalist with a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

"We got two guys who are outstanding," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "I think they're both going real well now and that's a huge advantage for us no matter who's in the net, we're getting a chance to win. It gives our guys a chance to come through offensively, so they've been big for us."

After starting the season 1-4-0 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .888 percentage, Crawford has been lights out since the calendar flipped to November. He’s 2-0-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in his last four starts, which includes a 39-save performance in a 5-3 win over the Golden Knights on Wednesday.

Lehner has been one of the league’s best from the beginning. His .934 save percentage ranks second among goaltenders with at least six appearances and his goals saved above average at 5-on-5 ranks fourth-best, according to Natural Stat Trick. Crawford's goals saved above average of 4.21 puts him at ninth.

And this is despite the fact the Blackhawks are giving up the most shots on goal per game (37.1), second-most high danger chances per 60 minutes at even strength (13.1) and third-most scoring chances per 60 minutes at even strength (29.2).

While the dynamic may have been awkward at first, both goaltenders appear to be making the best of the circumstances and view it as healthy competition.

"I mean, he's doing a great job," Crawford said of Lehner. "Definitely keeping us in games or being a big factor in some wins. I think both of us are just trying to be at our best when we get the chance."

The challenging part of the situation is getting both guys a fair amount of starts. Crawford has been vocal about preferring to start regularly — “it’s a little bit easier when you keep playing games in a row” — and Lehner no doubt feels the same.

"They both want to play 60 games, 80 games maybe,” Colliton said. “That's part of the team. [Patrick Kane] wants to play 60 minutes. It's how it is. Ultimately, we want to make decisions that help the team win and part of that is keeping both guys fresh, keeping both guys playing at a high level and I think that's going to be a benefit for us as the season goes on."

It’s a good problem to have if you’re the Blackhawks, especially if Crawford and Lehner are at the top of their games at the same time like they are right now.

"It's great," Calvin de Haan said. "I think goaltending's the most important position. If you're not keeping the puck out of the net, you're not going to win a lot of games. But those guys are giving us a chance every night and it's really evident the past few weeks here."

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks overcome two-goal deficit to beat Golden Knights for first time

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USA Today

Four takeaways: Blackhawks overcome two-goal deficit to beat Golden Knights for first time

LAS VEGAS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday:

1. Blackhawks beat Golden Knights for first time ever

The Blackhawks entered this matchup the only team that hadn't beaten the Golden Knights since they entered the NHL in the 2017-18 season. They were 0-5-2 in the first seven games against them, despite having plenty of opportunities to beat them. As recently as Oct. 22, the Blackhawks were 1:33 away from shutting out Vegas before eventually falling in a shootout.

Despite giving up the first two goals, the Blackhawks rallied to score five straight and hung on for their first victory against the Golden Knights. They also won back-to-back games for the first time this season and improved to 3-0-1 in their last four games.

"It's good for the guys, good confidence boost," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "A reminder that we're trending the right way. By no means are we perfect. We got lots of work to do but that's a good team and they're going to be a top team this year, no question, and we took two points in their barn."

2. Wild end-to-end action

The Blackhawks know that their new schematic change will make for some entertaining hockey games. It will be high risk, high reward and fast-paced. And that's exactly what Wednesday was: a track meet between two teams that like to play quick.

The Blackhawks and Golden Knights combined for 116 shot attempts, 68 shots on goal, 59 total scoring chances, 36 high-danger chances (according to Natural Stat Trick) and eight goals. Each team also had a penalty shot, but Zack Smith rang his shot off the crossbar 44 seconds into the game, and Jonathan Marchessault missed on his in the second period.

"Tonight was kind of a track meet," Calvin de Haan said. "We were taking a lot of odd-man rushes here and there, but we were creating a ton at the same time. Obviously we just out-capitalized them. These guys play hard at home and we weathered their storm. It was a fun game to play overall, but there's some things we can clean up. But we got the two points and it's about wins and losses."

3. Blackhawks score five in a row

After jumping out to a 2-0 lead in each of their previous three games, the Blackhawks found themselves on the other side of that on Wednesday, with the Golden Knights striking twice in the opening 6:29.

But it didn't faze the Blackhawks. Patrick Kane responded 16 seconds after the Golden Knights went up by two with a goal in his fourth consecutive game, and his team later scored the next four. 

Kane (one goal, two assists) and Dylan Strome (one goal, two assists) each had three-point outings while Kirby Dach (one goal, one assist), Alex DeBrincat (two assists) and Zack Smith (two assists) also had multi-point efforts. It was a huge character win for the Blackhawks.

"That was big," Colliton said of rallying from a two-goal deficit. "Because I thought we were close early. ... We had a decent beginning of the game and we're down 2-0. Maybe five games ago that could have gone south on us but I really liked how we responded."

4. An entertaining goaltending battle between two of the best

When they're both on, Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury are two of the top goaltenders in the league. And their talents were on full display on national television Wednesday night.

Crawford faced 21 high-danger chances and stopped 39 of 42 shots for a save percentage of .929. Fleury was solid also even though the numbers don’t show it, facing 15 high-danger chances and giving up five goals on 26 shots for a save percentage of .808.

The final score was 5-3, but it could've been much higher if it weren't for the two of them matching high quality save after high quality save throughout the game.

"It was a fast game," Crawford said. "They’re a really good hockey team. I think they lost a few before tonight, so obviously they were gonna be hungry. Seems like they always come out hard in the first period there. But we didn’t fold. We just kept playing. This offense is so good that, we get a little sniff and we’re still in the game. ... It was a fun hockey game."

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