The Chicago Blackhawks pretty much blew their playoff chances when they lost four-of-five games on their recent five-game road trip, and followed that up with three more losses in their next four outings. Based upon his team’s play, general manager Stan Bowman had little choice but to sell at the Feb. 24 trade deadline. The beleaguered Blackhawks lost both defenseman Erik Gustafsson and goaltender Robin Lehner.
It hasn’t been the best couple weeks for the Blackhawks, but they refuse to give up. They lost a heartbreaker to the defending champion St. Louis Blues, yet were in the game until the end. They continued with two big wins in Florida, against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. Instead of doom and gloom the Blackhawks have changed the narrative, at least for now. Let’s look at the highlights from the past three contests.
Blackhawks’ Last Three Games
@ St. Louis Blues, Tues. 2/25, Loss 6-5
@ Tampa Bay Lightning, Thurs. 2/27, Win 5-2
@ Florida Panthers, Sat. 2/29, Win 3-2 (SO)
Keith Gets 100th Goal
Last week Duncan Keith hit two career milestones by earning his 500th assist and 600th point. But his 100th goal still eluded him. Fortunately, it didn’t take much longer to put the icing on the cake of this trifecta of honors.
Lucky No. 100 came on the power play during the first period against the Blues last Tuesday night. Keith unleashed a rocket from the point that made it through traffic and found the back of the net. With this goal he became the 100th defenseman in NHL history to hit 100 goals.
Duncan Keith joins Bob Murray, Doug Wilson and Brent Seabrook as the only defensemen to score 100 goals with the Blackhawks. pic.twitter.com/ctV3tLQVjj— Blackhawks Talk (@NBCSBlackhawks) February 26, 2020
Ironically, Keith has only just recently taken over quarterbacking the first power play unit since Gustafsson left the team at the trade deadline. It’s working out rather well for him and the team. In the last five games, Keith is credited with a goal and four assists on the man advantage.
It should also be mentioned the 36-year-old has been an absolute work horse for the Blackhawks of late. In the last three contests he’s averaged 27:56 minutes of ice time, which is by far the highest on the team. In that span, he’s contributed five points, eight shots on goal, six blocked shots, and two takeaways.
Kubalik’s First Hat Trick
While Keith hit his milestone Tuesday night, it was Dominik Kubalik’s turn Thursday night against the Lightning. The 24-year-old winger netted his first ever hat trick, scoring an even strength goal, a power play goal, and an empty net goal.
Kubalik now boasts 18 goals in the last 23 games. Overall, his 29 tallies leads the team (Patrick Kane has 28) and leads all NHL rookies (Denis Gurianov of the Dallas Stars has 20). He almost had 30 goals on Saturday night, but the score was eventually credited to Drake Caggiula. No worries, I’m sure No. 30 is right around the corner.
The last two months have been good to Kubalik, coinciding with being placed on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews, as well as the first power play unit. He’s credited with 14 points in January and 12 in February, whereas he only earned four, six, and eight points in October, November, and December respectively.
Many would argue head coach Jeremy Colliton is finally utilizing the Czech forward correctly, but Kubalik himself is simply making the most of his opportunity.
Just trying to do the same thing: be around the net because lots of goals are just laying there. So that’s where I’m trying to be and I’ve been lucky, so I’m really happy for that.
Kubalik is certainly a positive for the Blackhawks right now.
Crawford Kills It
Another bright spot is goaltender Corey Crawford. Many people, myself included, thought the Blackhawks made a mistake when they didn’t work out a new contract with Lehner. But you have to hand it to Crow. Like he’s done his entire career, he blocked out all the outside noise and simply got to work.
Crawford’s been in net the last five consecutive starts for the Blackhawks, posting a stellar .930 save percentage and a 2.6 goals against average in that time. For February overall he has a .927 SV% and the same 2.6 GAA. On Saturday night, the Panthers outshot the Blackhawks 21-to-5 in the third period and overtime combined, yet Crawford stopped all but one of them. He also thwarted two goal attempts in the shootout.
The 35-year-old two-time Stanley Cup winner is certainly making a case for himself to be the answer in net for the rest of this season and beyond.
Shift in Forward Lines and Defensive Pairings
After the Blackhawks heartbreaking 6-5 loss to the Lightning Tuesday night, they’ve shifted their lines and defensive pairings for the last two contests. Brandon Saad has replaced Caggiula on the top line. Dylan Strome has returned to centering the second line, with Alex Nylander on the left wing. Caggiula has been slotted onto the third line with Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat, and Ryan Carpenter has been demoted from second line center to fourth line winger.
Blackhawks’ Lineup the Last Two Games:
It makes sense to put Strome back in his natural position at center. He’s won 11-of-19 faceoffs for 58%, and is credited with one assist since the move. He’s arguably a better fit beside Kane than Carpenter. But having Nylander on the other wing is a bit of a head scratcher. He hasn’t done anything with his opportunity, and Colliton has limited his ice time accordingly. Against the Panthers he only played 6:41 minutes the entire game.
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It might be time for Nylander to sit out and get some “feedback”, as the coaching staff likes to say. The only problem is the Blackhawks don’t have any extra forwards right now. It was announced on Saturday that Andrew Shaw (concussion) and Zack Smith (back) will both be sidelined for the remainder of the season. Forward Brandon Hagel was called up from the Rockford IceHogs, but then re-assigned a few hours later. If the Blackhawks were smart, they would revisit this call-up for some more options.
On defense, Adam Boqvist was reunited with Keith on the top pairing to replace Slater Koekkoek. Lucas Carlsson drew back into the lineup instead of Nick Seeler alongside Connor Murphy, leaving Olli Maatta and Koekkoek together.
Boqvist has struggled recently, which is what prompted Colliton to move him off the top pairing. But he definitely has a higher ceiling than Koekkoek, and these pairings appear more balanced. It certainly worked out these past two tilts, as the Blackhawks have held their opponent to only two goals in each contest.
We shall see how these lines and pairings are adjusted moving forward.
Other Blackhawk’ News and Notes
- Defenseman Koekkoek tallied his first goal of the season last Thursday night against the Lightning. It was fitting he scored against the team that traded him away last season.
- The Blackhawks have scored on the power play in four of the last five games, including three power play tallies against the Lightning last Thursday night. It marked only the second game of the season where they scored more than once on the man advantage, having tallied two PP goals against the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 7.
- With Toews’ shootout goal against the Panthers, he became the first player in NHL history to score 50 shootout goals. Congrats Tazer!
- In both the Blackhawks’ recent wins, they came from behind to grab the victory. It shows resilience and character, and that the team isn’t about to lay down. Even with playoff hopes a longshot they appear committed to a winning culture, which is refreshing to see.
It’s only two wins, but it’s nice all the same. February was a tough month for the Blackhawks. But now they can turn the page and reset for March, where they host 11 of their 15 contests at the United Center. There are 17 more games left in the season for the Blackhawks to show us what they’ve got. Here’s to more victories in the home stretch!