St. Louis Blues

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

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USA TODAY

Central Casting: Can Blackhawks play the role of playoff team?

If the Blackhawks are going to end their postseason drought next season, they are going to have to jump over at least one of the five Central Division foes who qualified for this year’s postseason.

Of course, there is no guarantee the Central will get five teams in next year’s tournament, but let’s look at each club and identify teams that could take a step back next season.

Nashville

Ever since the Predators swept the Blackhawks and lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final, they have continued to regress each year in their attempts to hoist the Cup.

Last year, they lost to Winnipeg in Game 7 of the second round. This postseason, Dallas ousted Nashville in the first round.

The Predators appear to be at a Cup crossroads. They need to find more scoring than just the JOFA line. Do they need to move P.K. Subban to acquire scoring depth?

They also had the worst power play in the league and 36-year-old goalie Pekka Rinne had a sub-par .905 save percentage in the playoffs.

Expect a busy offseason in the Music City as the Predators look to stay in the upper tier of the Central.

Cup contender trending: Down

Winnipeg 

Did the Jets run into a team of destiny in the Blues? Or did the opening round loss highlight some areas of concern for Winnipeg?

The Jets season in many ways was the exact opposite of the Blues. Winnipeg started strong and was just average in the second half of the season.

The Jets have seven players that will become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, including Kevin Hayes. They also have six restricted free agents on their roster, which includes Patrik Laine and Jacob Trouba.

The Jets have had a rocky relationship with Trouba and are expected to trade the 25-year-old defenseman. Connor Hellebuyck’s production dropped off a bit from 2018 when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist.

The Jets have a great power play and three lines that can score. A couple of roster tweaks could help this young team take the next step.

Cup contender trending: Even

St. Louis

From last place in the entire league on Jan. 2 to being one of the final four teams standing in pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Craig Berube pushed all the right buttons when he took over last November. The Blues commitment to defense was highlighted by finally finding what appears to be a franchise goalie in Jordan Binnington.

The Blues are strong down the middle with centers Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak.

The Blues' key players are under contract next season. So, other than finding a new anthem to replace “Gloria” the Blues could be a major roadblock in the Blackhawks climb up the Central standings.

Cup contender trending: Up

Dallas

Another first-year coach in the Central, Jim Montgomery saw his team improve dramatically, as they fell just one goal short of reaching the Western Conference Final.

The Stars have a tremendous 1-2 punch in net with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.  

They have solid special teams with players like Tyler Seguin, Alex Radulov and John Klingberg putting up monster numbers.

They also saw young players like Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz make an impact on the scoresheet.

The Stars spent a second-round pick on Mats Zuccarello. Will the Stars have enough cap room to sign Zuccarello when he becomes a UFA this summer?

Cup contender trending: Even

Colorado

The Avalanche punched the final postseason ticket in the West and rode it all the way to Game 7 of the second round.

Luck was on the side of the Blackhawks during the draft lottery, but that wasn’t the case for Colorado. They had the best odds for the No. 1 overall pick and ended up with the fourth overall selection.

The Blackhawks won’t have to deal with Jack Hughes in an Avs sweater, but they will have to worry about blue line phenom Cale Makar for the foreseeable future.

The Avalanche had the most dangerous line in hockey for much of the season with Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

They are a young, fast team with a steady netminder in Philipp Grubauer. They will see Colin Wilson become a UFA on July 1.

Colorado may end up being the elite team in the Central for years to come.

Cup contender trending: Up

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Four takeaways: Blackhawks blank Blues to end losing skid, give Jeremy Colliton first win

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AP

Four takeaways: Blackhawks blank Blues to end losing skid, give Jeremy Colliton first win

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 1-0 win over the St. Louis Blues at the United Center on Thursday:

1. Jeremy Colliton's first NHL win

For the first time since Oct. 25, the Blackhawks are back in the win column. A weight has been lifted off their shoulders after going winless in their previous eight games (0-6-2).

But it was an extra special night for the Blackhawks, who helped Colliton earn his first victory as an NHL head coach and celebrated by giving him the game puck.

"I’m just here to help them," Colliton said. "So it's kind of awkward, actually. But I do appreciate the gesture and for me, it’s just, hopefully we can get some momentum going and build on it."

2. Corey Crawford puts up a goose egg

Going into the game, Crawford had a 3.07 goals against average and .901 save percentage, which are below average numbers. But he certainly hasn't played that way. He was often the Blackhawks' best player during their losing streak and has deserved better fate than he's gotten.

By stopping all 28 shots he faced, Crawford earned his first shutout since Nov. 4, 2017 when he made 24 saves in a 2-0 win over the Minnesota Wild.

"It's nice," Crawford said. "That's the goal, not let any in. But I thought everyone contributed to that. ... We've been waiting a while, kind of forgot what it was like to win there for a bit."

3. Power play breaks through

Finally. After an 0-for-10 drought, the Blackhawks scored a power play goal on their first try of the night and didn't need much time to do it.

Just 35 seconds into a Vladimir Tarasenko hooking penalty, Brent Seabrook cashed in after his shot trickled past Jake Allen and went in off a Blues defenseman's skate to make it 1-0 at 4:05 of the second period. It was the only goal of the game, proving to be the game-winner. 

The Blackhawks finished 1-for-2 in that department against a Blues team that came into the game with a 27.6 percent success rate, which ranked fifth in the NHL.

"It's a good feeling," Seabrook said. "It was nice to hear some music when they came in here after the game tonight. The boys are all fired up. The way we played going into the second period, being able to score a goal, hold onto the lead I think the way everybody played. Everybody stuck with it. Everybody stuck with the game plan. Everybody worked hard. It was a real team effort. ... It took all 20 guys out there tonight to get the job done."

4. Playing the right way leads to results

For six periods in a row, the Blackhawks have been either the better team or it was evenly matched. Giving up two power-play goals in 66 seconds to the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday was basically the difference in that game and special teams played a major role in this one as well. 

Colliton felt like the Blackhawks were, overall, trending in the right direction despite not getting the end results over the previous three games. He got both against the Blues, which was fitting considering the losing streak started vs. St. Louis.

"That was the part of the package that was missing," Colliton said. "Happy for the guys to get rewarded. It’s not a lot of fun to see the results add up. Very happy for the group, they battled really hard, especially in the third when the game was on the line. We found a way to get some pucks out and win some 50-50s and got a couple saves and hopefully that relieves a little bit of the tension in the team and they can play a little more free. Because we’ve been talking about it, but it’s easier said than done."

Four takeaways: Blackhawks push back, but can’t overcome hungry Blues

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USA TODAY

Four takeaways: Blackhawks push back, but can’t overcome hungry Blues

ST. LOUIS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 7-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on Saturday:

1. A four-goal first period

The Blackhawks and Blues barely gave fans a chance to get settled into their seats (or couches at home). There were four total goals in the first period, including three in the opening 5:28 and the first coming 18 seconds in. All four goals came at even strength.

Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Kane, Zach Sanford and Artem Anisimov each found the back of the net, alternating goals throughout the period.

"Even after we went down 1-0 we had that nice response to make it 1-1," Kane said. "It seemed like they were playing with a little bit more intensity than we were. We knew that was going to happen especially with the media attention, a lot of talk they've been getting about their team and kind of what happened last game. So we just didn't come out and match it."

2. Blackhawks dig hole in second period

The first 5:14 of the second period was a nightmare for the Blackhawks. They committed two penalties and gave up two goals within a span of 3:35, and essentially were forced to play catch-up the rest of the game.

The Blackhawks pushed back and were the better team for the next 15 minutes, recording 17 shot attempts to the Blues' five at even strength, but it was too much to overcome against a hungry Blues team.

"When we give up four goals, it's tough to come back against any team," Duncan Keith said. "They've got a lot of good players that have been around for a while. It wasn't a good start. We did some good things to get back into it, but at the end of the day when you're trying to come back against a team it's always tougher."

3. Second line comes alive

The second line of Anisimov, Kane and Brandon Saad was the driving force for the Blackhawks, combining for three goals and four assists. Anisimov and Kane each had three-point games.

With two more goals, Kane has taken over the NHL lead with 11 on the season and is four away from the lead in points with 17. Meanwhile, Anisimov quietly has seven points in his past seven games after going pointless in his first four. 

"Our line had some chances tonight," Kane said. "I thought we had a few that could have went in as well. Would have been nice to get a couple more there and tie it up and see what could happen after that. A couple breakdowns defensively that kind of killed us tonight."

4. Blues shut down Blackhawks in third period

Going into Saturday's matchup, the Blues had allowed 18 third-period goals through nine games, which was the worst in the league. But they tightened up in the final 20 minutes, limiting the Blackhawks to only five shots on goal and keeping all five out of their net.

The Blues scored three goals in the last 4:20 to seal the deal.

"I still think the game was there to be had but unfortunately we weren't good enough and we weren't at our best for whatever reason," Keith said. "Give them some credit, they moved it around on the power play and capitalized on their chances. But I still think the game was to be had, it was up for grabs, but it wasn't good enough at the end of the day."