Blackhawks Hot Sticks Igniting in 2016

Earlier in the season, the conversation almost always revolved around Patrick Kane, and while he is still a central part of most of the storylines coming out of Chicago, his line is no longer the only one grabbing the headlines. Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve seen captain Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Andrew Shaw and Dennis Rasmussen light the lamp, among others. However, in the last couple of games, we have seen a few players really start to ignite. The Blackhawks’ hot sticks are starting to grow in numbers, and that can only mean good things going forward.

Blackhawks’ Hot Sticks

Andrew Desjardins has been lighting the lamp quite a bit since the end of 2015. In fact, he has tallied four goals and an assist in his last three games, including an empty netter in Sunday night’s 3-0 shutout over the Ottawa Senators.

Desjardins has had a rough start this season, finding himself a healthy scratch on occasion, but his positive attitude and work ethic have served him well, as he generally bounces back quickly from coach Joel Quenneville’s motivational tactics.

“Last year when Desjardins came to our team, the one thing we found is how effective and efficient he is with the puck,” Quenneville said. “His production didn’t really reflect his possession game and how handy he was in tight areas. This year, he started off ordinary in that area and now he has made some great progress. The last couple of games, he has had it on his stick a lot and made a lot of nice plays. The finishes are a bonus. It’s nice to see him produce.”

For Desjardins, there was instant chemistry with Marcus Kruger and Shaw last season and they played together on the fourth line for much of the campaign (after Desjardins came on board), and the majority of the playoffs. This season, as Desjardins has bounced around the lineup a bit, he had been struggling to find that same kind of chemistry until Quenneville’s Q-sinart line blender spit him out on a line with Teuvo Teravainen and Phillip Danault.

As that line rolls with each of the three forwards finding some great opportunities offensively and Desjardins cashing in, it would seem like the blender will be put on the shelf for at least the second and third lines for the time being. The trio has found instant chemistry, and they’ve been quite reliable from one end of the ice to the other on a nightly basis. When something works, Q rarely messes with it.

Special Teams

One of the spots that Desjardins has excelled since he arrived from the San Jose Sharks (in a trade deadline acquisition involving Ben Smith) is special teams. He has become an integral part of the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which has been much more effective of late, in spite of losing resident PK specialist Kruger to injury.

The Blackhawks’ penalty kill is ranked 11th in the league with just over an 81 percent success rate, and Desi has been on the ice for a lot of their shorthanded work. He has frequently been joined by Danault and Artem Anisimov (in for the injured Kruger). On their home ice, the Blackhawks are currently ranked second on the penalty kill.

Special teams have started to click for the Blackhawks as they are also ranked third with a 23.8 percent success rate on the power play, which has been a sticking point in years past as well. The Blackhawks also rank third with 29 power-play goals (tied with the red-hot Dallas Stars), behind the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins with 30 apiece. For most teams, these units can be igniters when their offense is stagnant, as a goal while shorthanded, or on the man advantage, can give a team momentum that can often turn games that seemed out of reach.

Frequently, the difference for this penalty-kill unit has not been how they play in their own end, but how aggressively they will pursue and play the puck in their opponent’s end. Rather than clearing the puck 200 feet and waiting for the opposing team to regroup with the puck, the Blackhawks unit has had a lot of success pressuring in the offensive zone while even stealing a few shots on net producing some shorthanded opportunities. In fact, Anisimov has scored two shorthanded goals already this season (fourth in the NHL).

For the Blackhawks, this year has been a welcomed change for special teams, as the penalty kill had struggled on and off since the departure of Michael Frolik after the post-Cup purge of 2013.

What stands out with Desjardins is that he is an excellent defensive forward. He is difficult to move off the puck when he has it, and he can battle with the biggest and baddest players his opponents can throw at him to keep it, or get it back on his stick. His instincts are above average when he has the puck, but he typically plays well in every zone regardless of where the puck is.

In fact, he is one of a handful of players that Quenneville trusts on the defensive zone starts with games on the line. Desjardins is often on the ice in the waning minutes of games to help protect leads or battle to even the score when the Blackhawks are coming from behind. He has a gritty quality to his game, and that edge can often ignite the offense in a similar manner to Shaw, another known agitator.

Unlike Shaw, Desjardins doesn’t find himself in the penalty box, which is rather important for a penalty killer. Sure, he finds his way to the sin bin on occasion, but generally speaking, he has been pretty smart about keeping himself on the ice in key situations. However, Desjardins did miss an opportunity for his first career hat trick in Arizona last Thursday as he took a high-sticking penalty with about a minute and a half remaining. That’s one that he would undoubtedly like to have back.

Get the Party Started

Artem Anisimov has been able to fly under the radar as he plays the sidekick role to Kane and Artemi Panarin, but any team that focuses too much on that dynamic duo is likely to learn just how efficient Anisimov is with the puck. He has the long reach that has been one of the hallmarks of Marian Hossa’s game, and he has been able to use that to his advantage as he can sweep pucks away while on the move for several breakaway opportunities throughout the season.

He’s been successful on fast breaks because he has incredible strength in his first few strides that has helped him slip defenders and get in close on net to snipe a shot uncontested. In addition, he has an incredible sense of where he needs to be on the ice, and where his linemates will be. For Anisimov, that area is often the blue paint in front of the net allowing him to play the cleanup role for his defenseman and linemates when they misfire or have a blast deflected. He’s also a big body (6 feet 4 inches) who can effectively screen the netminder.

For the Blackhawks, that is a role that they have been trying to fill since the 2013 post-Cup cap dump. Bryan Bickell has filled the role in the past, but he has been getting limited ice time due to his lack of offensive production for most of this season.

Shaw has been another player who goes to the front of the net, but as he has moved through the lineup this season, that is not always where he ends up these days. To be fair, Shaw is more of a shade than a screen. He does an excellent job, but his size is a bit of a disadvantage when dealing with goalies who are much larger than the mutt. Of course, any size disadvantage is rarely a deterrent to the pesky forward who relishes any opportunity to get physical with players who tower over him.

Anisimov is already a fan favorite, and you can almost see coach Joel Quenneville get all warm and fuzzy when he talks about the big Russian. He is the Blackhawks’ holy grail in terms of the player they had long been seeking to fill the void centering Kane’s line.

The added bonus is that he arrived at the same time as fellow Russian Panarin, turning that line into a tour de force that only a few teams have been able to slow down.

The man known as Arty-Party is a secondary version of Duncan Keith. While the team seemingly runs on Duncan, the second line runs on Anisimov. The line essentially has three quarterbacks, but Anisimov is the engine that keeps the trio rolling as his scoring wingers rotate around the offensive zone. He is the steadying force that anchors the two freewheeling wingers.

Anisimov is on pace for a career year, having already recorded 15 goals in 40 games, with his previous high being 22 goals over 81 games.

For Desjardins and Anisimov, the scoring is an added benefit behind their solid two-way play. Neither is expected to burn up the stat sheets on a nightly basis, but no one is going to complain when they do; certainly not coach Quenneville.

The Crow Takes Flight

Corey Crawford hasn’t been perfect this season with the occasional stinker on his record, but he has been just about as good as the Blackhawks could’ve hoped. After all, even some of the best goaltenders the league has to offer can go through a cold streak. For Crow‘s season, the goalie’s cold streaks have not lasted longer than a few games here or there, while some of the elite netminders have had stretches that last considerably longer.

On Sunday night, Crawford added his sixth shutout of the season, and the Blackhawks are still one game away from the halfway point. That sixth shutout has put him back in the lead for the NHL, with Jake Allen holding onto second with five.

Crow has played in 32 of the Blackhawks’ 40 games, recording a 20-10-2 record. He has also earned a 2.24 goals against average and a .925 save percentage. Though, none one of these stats truly tells the whole story, as Crawford has been playing some of his best hockey over the course of this season.

The truth of the matter is that Crawford will always have his share of detractors; However, as long as this team believes in him, they can silence just about any critic. There is a symmetry to the way this team plays for each other, and their ability to carry the slack for a player on an off night, or out with an injury is fairly astounding.

With the win on Sunday night, the Blackhawks are back in second place in the Central behind the Stars (with the St.Louis Blues right on their heels, and the Minnesota Wild three points back). The race to the finish will be tough, but the Blackhawks have proven they can weather just about any storm.

Dealing Before The Deadline

During Sunday night’s game, the Blackhawks picked up forward Richard Panik from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Jeremy Morin, as he was traded out of Chicago for the second time. Morin played the entire first half of the season with the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.

Panik is expected to report directly to the Blackhawks, and should figure into the lineup during one of the two home-and-home games against the Pittsburgh Penguins while Morin will report directly to the Leafs’ AHL Affiliate, Toronto Marlies.