5 Reasons the Blackhawks Found More Success in January

The month of December was brutal for the Chicago Blackhawks; there’s no doubt about it. They won just two of their 13 contests. Granted, they were up against some stiff competition. But they struggled with their team game and just couldn’t seem to put it all together. January, on the other hand, was much more productive. The Blackhawks won seven of 13 games. They’re finally seeing their hard work pay off, and it’s starting to show in a much better all-around game. Not to mention some wins!

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I know I know! The Blackhawks are supposed to be losing. Management’s goal is to be bad this season in order to obtain a high draft pick. But the coaches and the players don’t care about that. And this recent stretch of success is just what the doctor ordered to build a winning identity and foster confidence and growth. So let’s roll with it! Today we’ll highlight some of the improvements the Blackhawks have made and how they can ride this momentum moving forward. Here are five reasons the Blackhawks were so much more successful in January than December.

Forward Lines Falling Into Place

The Blackhawks had to adjust their lines at the end of the month due to Tyler Johnson re-injuring his ankle, and then Jonathan Toews was out to an illness for one game. But for the majority of January the team deployed the below forward lines pretty consistently.

T. Johnson – Max Domi – Patrick Kane

Philipp Kurashev – Toews – Taylor Raddysh

Jason Dickinson – Sam Lafferty – Andreas Athanasiou

Colin Blackwell – MacKenzie Entwistle – Reese Johnson

Interestingly, here players who have been paired together for most of the season:

  • Domi and Kane
  • Toews and Raddysh
  • Lafferty and Dickinson
  • R. Johnson and Blackwell

While the third member of these lines has changed, having the above partners together on a steady basis has allowed for consistency and cohesion in the lineup. Head coach Luke Richardson has experimented with who best rounds out each trio.  

Chicago Blackhawks Celebrate
The Chicago Blackhawks celebrate a goal. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Blackhawks definitely benefitted from having T. Johnson back in the lineup. In December, he missed six games as he worked to return from an ankle injury. Upon his return, he eventually found his way to the first line, where he was quite effective. His presence also allowed for more balance throughout the rest of the lineup. Hopefully Johnson will be able to return after the All-Star break this week.

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Kurashev has proven that he should be among the top-six forwards. His skill and hockey IQ are best served with this deployment. Playing on the top line might have been a little much for him, but lining up alongside Toews and Raddysh appears to be the perfect fit.

Athanasiou is a bit of a conundrum. One would think his speed would complement the playmaking abilities of the top line, and this is definitely an option Coach Richardson has returned to many times. But Athanasiou also seems to thrive on the third line where the competition might not be so stiff. He also benefits from two tenacious players in Dickinson and Lafferty as his partners to open up more time and space for him.

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Finally, Blackwell and R. Johnson have particularly clicked recently. Entwistle rounds out that line quite nicely with his strong work ethic and physical presence.

Blackhawks Scoring More Goals

Finding some consistency in the lineup naturally should lead to more goals being scored, which has certainly been the case.

Team Totals

As a whole, the Blackhawks scored 21 goals and were shut out three times in December. In January they more than doubled that total, scoring 44 goals. They even had a shutout of their own, a 2-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 6.

With the exception of Kane (3G and 6A in December compared to 3G and 5A in January), every single forward posted better numbers in January than in December. Let’s highlight a few players who especially stepped up.

Different Players Stepping Up

We already mentioned that veteran T. Johnson was hurt in December. He only participated in seven contests and contributed a goal and an assist. In January, he suited up for nine games and added two goals and four helpers to his stats. Again, having Johnson in the lineup is highly beneficial towards the Blackhawks’ overall success.

Tyler Johnson, Chicago Blackhawks
Having a versatile veteran such as Tyler Johnson in the lineup is very beneficial for the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kurashev had a goal and two assists in December, but notched three tallies and four assists in January. Dickinson and Lafferty really stepped up. For Dickinson, producing just one helper in December turned into three goals and three assists in January. Two assists in December became five goals and three assists in January for Lafferty. That’s quite a marked improvement!

Same thing with Blackwell on the fourth line. He registered zero points in December, but contributed a goal and four assists in January. Shout out as well to Lukas Reichel, who delivered a goal and two assists on Jan. 8 versus the Calgary Flames, and Luke Philp, who earned his first NHL point with an assist to Boris Katchouk on Jan. 26.

Related – Blackhawks’ Kurashev Line is Setting the Standard

All in all, this has got to bring confidence to the players individually and the team as a whole. Those chances and shots that didn’t go in before are finding their way to the back of the net more often now. It’s something to build on moving forward.

Better Defensive Structure

The entire defensive corps has looked much better since Richardson moved Jake McCabe to the top defensive pairing alongside Seth Jones (instead of Jack Johnson). McCabe and Jones seem to be a better fit. McCabe’s presence has definitely affected Jones’ play in a positive way. Jones seems to be more confident and freer to play his game. Let’s also remember Jones’ thumb is healed from an injury he sustained on Oct. 29. The 28-year-old has been much more aggressive in the offensive zone, and it’s shown on the stat sheet. He went from five helpers in December to three goals and nine assists in January.

Seth Jones Chicago Blackhawks
Defenseman’s Seth Jones’ play has improved dramatically in the month of January. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

McCabe has added more production as well. He’s contributed a goal and four assists in January compared to just three assists in December.  

Moving on to the second and third pairings. Nothing against J. Johnson, but I think he might have been in over his skates a little bit on that top pairing. He appears much more comfortable on the second pairing with Connor Murphy. They too have formed a solid shutdown pairing.

Caleb Jones has been hit or miss with his game all season, but he’s starting to find some consistency. He’s been much less of a liability defensively of late, and even managed this highlight reel sequence.

Finally, let’s talk about the rotating sixth and seventh defensemen, Ian Mitchell and Isaak Phillips. Phillips added one assist in five games in December, but upped his numbers to a goal and two assists in six games in January. Even though he was sent back down to the Rockford IceHogs on Jan. 23, I see a bright future for Phillips with the Blackhawks.

Mitchell offered two assists in five games in December, and then contributed a goal and two assists in nine games in January. At 5-foot-11, Mitchell is a smaller body and doesn’t seem to fit into what the Blackhawks are looking for in their future blue line. I have a hunch he’s being shopped right now.

Overall, the defensive corps contributed a whopping eight goals and 18 assists in January. In December? One goal and 12 assists. I think that added production on the back end speaks for itself.

Goaltending Holding On

I guess if I was a goaltender for the Blackhawks I would be slightly offended by this heading. But let’s face it, no one really expected Petr Mrazek and especially Alex Stalock to play as well as they have this season. Their success is a pleasant surprise.

Petr Mrazek Chicago Blackhawks
Goaltender Petr Mrazek of the Chicago Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mrazek has struggled while he dealt with some groin injuries. Before Stalock entered concussion protocol for the second time on Jan. 17, Mrazek was essentially demoted to second string. But he’s taken advantage of his additional time in net. His January numbers still don’t look all that great (a .890 save percentage and 3.91 goals against average in eight games). But he’s played quite well the last handful of games, making key saves at the right times to help keep the Blackhawks in games.

Meanwhile, we have the feel-good story of Jaxson Stauber, who impressed many with his extremely composed first NHL game against the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 22. He then went on to win his 2nd start against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 26.

Stauber was also sent back down to the IceHogs with the All-Star break postponing NHL games for a week. We’ll see if he gets any more action when the Blackhawks return to their regular schedule on Feb. 7.

Blackhawks’ Coaching an Asset

I don’t think this is much of a debate anymore. No one was sure how Richardson would handle being an NHL head coach for the first time, or how he and his personally assembled coaching staff would fare. Not to mention they were put in an extremely difficult position, tasked with getting the best out of a subpar team.

Luke Richardson Chicago Blackhawks
Luke Richardson is behind the bench as an NHL head coach for the first time with the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

December was tough, but the team’s resiliency and improved record in January shows they did make steps in the right direction. The players have bought in, and that doesn’t happen without good coaching. You have Domi hinting he’d be happy to stay with the Blackhawks if he ends up not being flipped at the trade deadline. You have young players saying they understand their assignments and roles because it’s spelled out in an easy and straightforward way. And you have Richardson himself saying all the right things, and never throwing his players under the bus. Here’s a recent example from Richardson that encapsulates this January trend of more winning.

I saw it coming before we got here, I keep saying that. Two or three games before we got to this bit of a stretch here, we were playing good hockey and we just couldn’t connect and maybe weren’t getting the scoring chances. When guys aren’t confident, they don’t shoot confident. They’re not playing free out there and just reacting to what they see, so they’re a little bit tight. That affects the offense more than the defensive game. Overall, when we got over that hump and got that first win, it was a breath of fresh air, and our guys have just enjoyed each other and enjoyed this road trip and being together and winning together, and it becomes infectious and contagious.

(from ‘As Blackhawks keep winning, what does it mean for the tank?’, The AthleticCHI – 1/21/23)

Richardson and company are building the right culture, and it’s showing in more wins. Each win builds a little bit more confidence as they build towards a better future. The Blackhawks have 13 more games before the trade deadline on Mar. 3. At that time this current team could get blown up. In the name of the rebuild, a number of valued players likely won’t be with the team anymore. When this happens, they will be forced to reassess accordingly.

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But that time isn’t here yet. I’m personally excited to see what else this existing group can accomplish in the month of February.