Cam Ward

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

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USA TODAY

Breaking down why Cam Ward has been better than his numbers show with Blackhawks

If you look at Cam Ward's stat line this season, his numbers don't look great. In fact, they aren't very good.

His 3.60 goals against average ranks dead last in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 20 starts, and .898 save percentage ranks 39th out of 47th. But there's a reason for that.

Ward is facing 9.4 high-danger chances at even strength per game and a shade above 11 in all situations, according to naturalstattrick.com. No other goaltender is seeing that many quality of shots at that rate. Couple that with the fact that the Blackhawks are giving up the second-most shots in general (35.4) and the numbers simply won't favor the goaltender, no matter who's in net. 

On Thursday against the New Jersey Devils, Ward faced 19 total high-danger shots against. He stopped all 19 of those. He also turned aside 35 of 36 shots at 5-on-5 to up his season save percentage to .922 in that area.

Where Ward's overall save percentage has taken a big hit this season is the penalty kill. He's given up 26 power-play goals on 122 shots against for a .787 save percentage. Some of that is on him. But the Blackhawks statistically have the worst penalty kill in the league with a 73.4 percent kill rate, so there's plenty of blame to go around.

In the big picture, Ward deserves more credit than he's getting for his on-ice play with Corey Crawford out and off-ice role by serving as a great mentor for Collin Delia. Quite frankly, the Blackhawks likely wouldn't be in the playoff race at this point in the season if it wasn't for him because he's bridged the gap perfectly between a two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie and 24-year-old who had only two NHL starts going into this season.

Remember how last season turned out when they didn't have a veteran like Ward?

Four takeaways: Blackhawks score five unanswered in bounce-back win over Devils

Four takeaways: Blackhawks score five unanswered in bounce-back win over Devils

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Stumbling out of the gates

"If we're not ready to play, they're going to beat us. So let's not do that again."

Those were head coach Jeremy Colliton's words after morning skate. Fortunately for the Blackhawks, it didn't come back to bite them in the rear end because their start wasn't great.

The Devils scored the first two goals of the game and generated 15 scoring chances and eight high-danger chances at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com, in the opening 20 minutes alone. It was exactly what the Blackhawks were looking to avoid. But they were able to salvage it.

"We got a big goal at the end of the first period to give ourselves a little bit of life," Colliton said. "And then I thought we responded really well in the second period with the type of effort that we needed to give ourselves a chance. We were really good, we won the game in the second."

2. Five unanswered goals

After giving up the first two goals, the Blackhawks pushed back in a huge way. Patrick Kane scored with 1:43 left in the first period, Drake Caggiula scored 20 seconds into the second period, Jonathan Toews later scored the go-ahead goal, Artem Anisimov extended it with 6:24 left in the third period and Brandon Saad put the icing on the cake 1:39 later with a shorthanded tally.

It was five unanswered goals by five different players for the Blackhawks, who won for the ninth time this season when trailing after the first period, which is tied for second-most in the NHL.

"For us to fall behind and kind of have a slow start and bounce back, it shows a lot of character in our group," Saad said. "Even from the start of the year, there's games where we'd get behind and the air would go out of our tires. So for us to be able to battle back, maybe it's confidence, maybe it's the experience coming along. But we definitely have more fun doing it that way."

3. Patrick Kane's run continues

A big reason why the Blackhawks have turned things around has been the consistency of Kane. He was noticeable from the moment the puck dropped, and recorded three points (one goal, two assists) to extend his point streak to 16 games.

With an assist in his 15th consecutive game, Kane surpassed Stan Mikita's franchise record for an assist streak. Kane now holds the Blackhawks record for point streak (26) and assist streak (15). And he's not done yet.

"It’s special," Kane said. "Pretty cool record as far as when you talk about consistency, both those records. It’s nice. I’ve had some great teammates over the years, and as far as the record goes tonight, a lot of guys burying pucks when I’m passing to them. Pretty cool feeling."

Kane thought a three-point outing would close the gap in the NHL's scoring race with Nikita Kucherov, who leads all players with 92 points. But after taking a quick glance at the gamecast after the game, he realized Kucherov actually built on his lead.

"I just saw that he had four tonight," Kane laughed. "You think you have three you’re going to maybe cut down the lead a little bit, and he has four. He's an unbelievable player."

4. Cam Ward extends win streak to five games

The Blackhawks didn't do Ward any favors towards the beginning of the season. He had only seven wins in his first 20 games, and was facing a ton of quality shots that made his save percentage look much worse than he was actually playing.

Now he's getting rewarded for it. 

Ward stopped 41 of 43 shots for a save percentage of .953, and faced 21 high-danger chances in all situations on Thursday. And yet, he had a high-danger save percentage of 1.000. The Blackhawks don't come away with two points without their 34-year-old netminder, who faced at least 40 shots for the sixth time this season.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel good," Ward said. "I’ve been saying all season long I’m just trying to give the team a chance to win every single night. Some nights might be prettier than others, but I think collectively as a group we’re playing much better even though tonight wasn’t our best. But we’re finding ways to win hockey games. At this stage of the year, that’s the most important thing.”

Blackhawks 2018-19 midseason grades: Goaltenders

Blackhawks 2018-19 midseason grades: Goaltenders

When Corey Crawford went down with a concussion in December of 2017, the Blackhawks were caught scrambling trying to salvage a playoff run. Six goaltenders were used down the stretch: J-F Berube, Collin Delia, Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and, Chicago's fan-favorite, accountant Scott Foster.

This season has been different. The Blackhawks put themselves in a much better position in the goaltending department, adding veteran Cam Ward on a one-year deal and sending Forsberg to Rockford to form a strong 1-2 tandem with Delia.

After Ward started the first five games of the season, Crawford was cleared to return to game action from his 10-month layoff and looked like he didn't skip a beat. He went 3-1-0 in his first four starts and had a .946 save percentage.

And then things became challenging.

A coaching change happened, a new defensive zone coverage system was implemented and the numbers started to dip. And then the worst-case scenario occurred, where Crawford was placed in concussion protocol after hitting the back of his head on the post in a December game against San Jose. Thankfully, he has skated a few times and was seen doing so with the Blackhawks before a recent practice. It appears he's progressing well.

The silver lining to his injury, if you can even call it that, has been the emergence of Delia. He has been a hidden gem.

As noted in our defensemen grades, the Blackhawks are giving up the most high-danger chances out of any team in the NHL. And that's put their goaltenders in a very tough spot.

In fact, of the 84 goaltenders who have appeared in a game this season, all three Blackhawks goaltenders are among the top 5 in facing the closest average shot distance at 5-on-5, according to naturalstattrick.com: Ward (second at 32.8 feet), Delia (third at 33.0) and Crawford (fifth at 33.8). 

Despite that, the Blackhawks rank 18th as a team in 5-on-5 save percentage at 91.4 and eighth in high-danger save percentage at .825. It's hard to ask for much more than that.

Overall, the Blackhawks' team save percentage is 89.4, which ranks 27th out of 31 teams. You wonder how much of that has to do with the high volume and high quality of shots their goaltenders are seeing, though. The percentages aren't going to favor the goaltender at that rate, no matter who's in net. 

Grade: B-

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