Blackhawks

Hits won't stop as long as Hawks have control

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Hits won't stop as long as Hawks have control

GLENDALE, Ariz. For the Chicago Blackhawks, the hits just kept on coming from the Phoenix Coyotes last night. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, all of the Blackhawks top skill guys were in the Coyotes crosshairs.

The Blackhawks including Toews came out of it just fine health-wise. But facing a team thats more scrap than skill, the Blackhawks can probably expect more of the same from the Coyotes the rest of this series.

The Coyotes doled out 48 hits, according to the score sheet, in their 3-2 overtime victory over the Blackhawks on Thursday night. Yes, that number is high, and one that is a little skewed; the Blackhawks had good puck possession in the first and third periods, which meant the Coyotes were chasing more than dictating. And while the Coyotes would like to have the puck more than they did last night, theyre intent on keeping that physical edge.

Were going to be physical with everyone. We have to be, Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. We cant just let them skate. They have too much skill.

The Blackhawks have a lot of firepower and a lot of speed that the Coyotes will try to curtail. They took their lumps on Thursday night, including Toews, who was back after missing 22 games with a concussion. And although he was sore immediately after the game, Toews is feeling good today and considered that outing a successful test of his recovery.

He figured hed be taking some knocks.

I expected worse, he said about the hits on him. Obviously Im going to be at the net, in front of the goalie. Every chance they get theyre going to take shots. I expected that. Its no big deal; Im just happy with the way I dealt with it. Im going to keep playing and not shy away from that sort of thing.

Thats good, because theyll probably keep coming. While that physical game played a role in Game 1, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett is looking more at the big picture.

Were hoping it plays a role in the series as it progresses, he said. Theyve got some top-end skill that you have to try and make the game hard on. With that being said, you have too many hits when you dont do good things with the puck. But we have a purpose. We want to be physical in this series, that goes without saying.

Phoenix forward Martin Hanzal, who had a team-high eight hits last night, concurred.

Weve got to be physical against these guys because their first two lines they have such good skill, he said. And if you take the puck and time from them, its going to be to our advantage.

The Blackhawks, indeed, often become a target because of their strong puck possession game. And the more hits the other team has, the more they must be dictating things. Still, the Coyotes are good at knocking players off the puck and causing turnovers, something that hurt the Blackhawks last night. So the Blackhawks will weather the black-and-blue storm and keep playing their game.

We have a pretty skilled team. We try to keep the puck in our hands and try to spend as much time in their zone, Marian Hossa said. They like to play physical but we can play smart and get to their net as much as we can.

The Blackhawks being outhit isnt a stunning revelation; its happened quite a bit this season. The Coyotes will keep trying to hit them. The Blackhawks will just keep trying to dodge them and keep the puck with them.

The first few games of the series, we know what its going to be like. We were prepared. We knew they were going to come out crashing and banging, Dave Bolland said. We had the puck a lot and I think were working well pretty down low there, doing things to keep it in their zone. But we can do more to get back in this series.

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

Three keys and prediction: Bears vs. Patriots

1. Good games from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Here’s a sampling of Pro Football Focus grades for primary middle/inside/will linebackers against New England this year: 

Reggie Ragland (KC): 60.1
Anthony Hitchens (KC): 30.2
Zaire Franklin (IND): 48.6
Najee Goode (IND): 47.1
Kiko Alonso (MIA): 63.9
Raekwon McMillan (MIA): 62.5
Christian Jones (DET): 59.7
Jarrad Davis (DET): 29.8
Telvin Smith Sr. (JAX): 64.1
Myles Jack (JAX): 61.0
Bernardrick McKinney (HOU): 68.7
Zach Cunningham (HOU): 43.2

Think what you will of Pro Football Focus’ grades, but the average here is 53.2. Interestingly, though, the average grade for these 12 players over the course of the 2018 season is 51.5. So maybe the issue is the Patriots have faced a bunch of mediocre-to-bad linebackers, allowing them to take advantage of those soft spots with Sony Michel running the ball and James White catching it. Smith’s PFF grade is 62.3; Trevathan’s is 64.3, so by this measure, they’re better than any of the interior linebackers the Patriots have faced but still are the weak spot in the Bears’ defense (only Jonathan Bullard has a lower PFF grade among players with 100 or more snaps). 

How Smith and Trevathan play will be key in determining how quickly Brady is able to get the ball out (with passes to White), and how many times they get into third-and-less-than-five situations (with Michel running it). Both those factors will be critical for the Bears’ pass rush, which brings us to our next point.

2. Pressure Tom Brady without blitzing. Brady is a master of beating blitzes, completing 23 of 21 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and only one sack when blitzed, per PFF (that’s good for a 138.4 passer rating). When he’s under pressure, though, he has his lowest passer rating — which is still 87.2 — but the point here is that the Bears can’t afford to have to send blitzes to try to get pressure on Brady. The Bears were one of the best teams in the league at pressuring opposing quarterbacks without blitzing before the trip to Miami, and how healthy Khalil Mack really is will be a critical determining factor in those efforts. But when the Bears do earn their pass-rushing opportunities, as Akiem Hicks put it, they need to at least affect Brady and not let him comfortably sit back to pick apart their defense. 

3. Convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. This was a point Taylor Gabriel made this week about the state of the NFL in 2018: You can no longer afford to settle for three points or, worse, come away from a red zone possession with no points. Scoring is up league-wide, and the Patriots have scored 38, 38 and 43 points in their last three games. One of the biggest reasons the Bears lost that shootout in Miami was two turnovers from inside the five-yard line (Jordan Howard’s fumble, Mitch Trubisky’s interception). Stopping New England’s offense will be difficult, and the expectation should be for Sunday to be a high-scoring afternoon. If that’s the case, the Bears will have to get in the end zone every opportunity they get. The good news: New England’s defense is allowing a touchdown on 68 percent of their opponents’ possessions inside the red zone. 

Prediction: Patriots 31, Bears 27. The Bears’ defense sounded properly motivated after getting gouged by Brock Osweiler in Miami last weekend, but that only goes so far when one of the best quarterbacks of all time rolls into town. This winds up being a back-and-forth affair, but the guy with 54 game-winning drives in his regular season and playoff career makes it 55 late in the fourth quarter at Soldier Field. A close loss to the Patriots wouldn’t dampen the positive vibes around the Bears, so long as they respond with wins against the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in the next two weeks.