What a week for the Chicago Blackhawks. After a rough 1-2-1 road trip that featured an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday with just 16.6 seconds remaining, a 3-2 overtime win against the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday, and an abysmal showing against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, the Blackhawks bounced back in a major way against the Vancouver Canucks with a 5-2 victory where they took the lead early and never looked back. The loss was Vancouver’s first regulation loss since Oct. 19.
Puck control and opposing shots on goal have been a big problem for Chicago during their season-long struggles, so it was refreshing to see them play a complete game against the Canucks. It’s difficult to gauge which way the team as a whole is trending after the up-and-down week. While we wait and see if it was just a one-off, or if the team is actually starting to figure it out, let’s take a look at whose stock is trending up, and whose stock is trending down this past week.
Originally brought in as an insurance policy for the oft-injured Corey Crawford, it has been the Robin Lehner show for the Blackhawks thus far. While both goalies have dealt with the same issues in front of them, Lehner has been the one who has continually weathered the storm and has also become a fan favorite off the ice with his candid interviews. The netminder earned his 100th career win against the Ducks, stopping 36 of 38 shots for a .947 save percentage (SV%), and followed it up with a 28 for 31 effort in the loss to the Sharks. He even came in as relief for Crawford during the Kings game after a concussion scare and turned away all five shots he faced before Crawford returned.
This isn’t to take anything away from Crawford. The long-time Blackhawks goalie gets an honorable mention for going 40 for 44 against the Kings and shutting down the streaking Canucks with 36 saves on 38 attempts, both much better than his .892 SV% on the season. Chicago appears to be in good shape in the crease with both goalies for the first time in a few seasons, and a lot of that starts with the emergence of Lehner, who is fifth in the NHL with a .935 SV% and continues to see his stock rise with every start.
DeBrincat – Strome – Kane
The Blackhawks have been starving for offense, especially from their top-six. Lucky for them, the line of Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, and Patrick Kane have stepped their game up individually, but more importantly, as linemates. On the week, Kane scored two power play goals, including the overtime winner against Anaheim, and added 5 assists. Strome chipped in with three assists in the Vancouver game, and DeBrincat had an assist against the Sharks and added two goals, including a power play goal against the Ducks, and this impressive highlight-reel goal against the Canucks, assisted by Strome and Kane. The unit’s efficiency and effectiveness together as of late can be summed up by this tweet.
Simply speaking, the offense is better with these three on the ice. All three are trending upwards individually, but as a group, they’ve been nearly unstoppable.
Special teams as a whole were a bright spot for the Blackhawks last week. There hasn’t been a lot of defensive highs for the team, but their penalty kill was a definite positive during the recent road trip. You never like to see your team commit penalties, but Chicago’s penalty kill unit bailed out their teammates in a big way, going a near-perfect 15-for-16 on the road trip, and 13-for-15 during the last week.
As for the power play, they were struggling to find any type of offensive output. That seemed to end last week. After Dominik Kubalik ended the team’s 0-for-21 drought on the power play during the Kings game, a drought dating back to Oct. 18, Chicago added a power play goal against the Ducks and scored two more against the Canucks. The team did allow a shorthanded goal to Evander Kane in the Sharks game, but that was a rough game all around. As a whole, the penalty kill has been on fire lately, and the power play has really seemed to find its footing and trend back in the right direction.
Head Coach Jeremy Colliton
Colliton’s first 82 games as the Blackhawks’ head coach have been an interesting ride. After replacing fan-favorite Joel Quenneville early on in the 2018-19 season, just barely missing the playoffs, and ending the season with a little bit of momentum, the 2019-20 campaign has been a tumultuous one for the second-year coach. Sporting a 35-35-12 record through his first 82 games, the Blackhawks just didn’t play up to their talent level for much of the season.
This all came to a head after the 4-2 thrashing Chicago received at the hands of San Jose, leading many to lose confidence in the young head coach and call for his ousting. This was followed by fans booing Colliton during introductions for the Canucks game at the United Center.
His team answered the boos with a strong victory over a good team, but their 5-7-3 record leaves a lot to be desired when you consider the talent on the roster. The Vancouver game was a good start, but he’s going to need a few more all-around good games before the negative perceptions can start to shift back in his favor.
Despite scoring a power play goal against the Kings and assisting on a power play goal against the Ducks, Kubalik was a healthy scratch against the Canucks. The young forward was one of the Blackhawks’ most consistent players early on, but his play seemed to level off once the Brandon Saad, David Kampf, Kubalik line was broken up. He hasn’t been totally useless, but he hasn’t played the way his coach knows he can.
“We think his play has dropped off a little bit,” Colliton said. “We want to get him back to where he was playing earlier. Sometimes rest and some feedback can do that.”
Part of that ineffectiveness comes from Kubalik getting away from what he does best. He’s a volume shooter who just wasn’t taking shots while being on the ice for a lot of them. Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times had a good breakdown as to why the healthy scratch was probably a good move after a tough road trip.
He’s still scoring some points — here’s to hoping the time off helps him get back to doing the rest of the little things right, too.
Defensive Zone Work
The Blackhawks spent the offseason addressing some of their defensive deficiencies, but their defense was still pegged as a potential problem area for the 2019-20 season.
There’s certainly a bit more grit along the blue line, but unfortunately for them, grit hasn’t kept their opponents from firing at will. In the last week, Blackhawks’ goalies faced 49 shots on goal against the Kings, 38 against the Ducks, 31 against the Sharks, and 38 against the Canucks. Luckily for the defense, Chicago’s goalies have risen to the occasion and thwarted an abundance of high-quality opportunities, but the sloppy play in the defensive zone has led to too many chances and too many long shifts, leading to a dip in quality of play.
The Blackhawks will look to keep their momentum rolling this week as they head to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins on Saturday, host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, and then travel to Las Vegas to face the Golden Knights on Wednesday.