Now don’t get me wrong. It’s still highly unlikely these Chicago Blackhawks make the playoffs this season. But they had a good week, earning themselves four more points with wins over the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars. Their current 67 points has them seven points out of the final wild card spot. With 14 games to go and numerous head-to-head matchups with the same teams fighting for that final spot, anything is possible.
They just keep sucking us back in, don’t they? But isn’t that what we’re here for?! It looks like there could be meaningful hockey until the end, so let’s dive in.
Blackhawks’ Week 23 Matchups
Vs. Buffalo Sabres, Thurs. 3/7, Win 5-4 (SO)
@ Dallas Stars, Sat. 3/9, Win 2-1
Overall Record: 29-30-9, 67 points
Forward Line Changes
After losing four of their last five contests before this past week, coach Jeremy Colliton felt some line changes were in order. This is what the forward lines looked like these last two games:
Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-John Hayden (Dylan Sikura)
Alex DeBrincat-Dylan Strome-Brendan Perlini
Dominik Kahun-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Chris Kunitz-David Kampf-Marcus Kruger
The most notable adjustment here is that the top-heavy first line of Toews and Kane was separated for more balance. As a matter of fact, Kane was relegated to the “third line.” There are basically two people who have chemistry with each other on every line. On the first line you have Toews and Saad. DeBrincat and Strome are the mainstays on the second line. Kane and Anisimov have a history that goes way back to when they formed that dominant line with Artemi Panarin. And Kunitz and Kruger have been the backbone of the fourth line for most of the season.
It’s the third player on each line where Colliton gets creative. Drake Caggiula was thriving on the first line for a while, but unfortunately he’s still unavailable after sustaining a concussion on Feb. 27. Instead, Colliton first plugged in Hayden and then Sikura. Neither fared all that well, and Kane ended up double-shifting and taking most of their minutes after all.
Caggiula’s absence has given Perlini more ice time. He’s taken advantage and earned himself a spot on the second line. Kahun is being given a chance to build some chemistry with Kane on the third line. And finally, the Hawks got some reinforcements as Kampf returned to the fourth-line center spot after being out with a right foot injury since Feb. 5.
Kane Still Carries
If you’re thinking having Kane on the third line is cutting down his minutes and responsibility, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s all smoke and mirrors, people. Put simply, Kane is playing on the third line along with double-shifting on the top lines, as well.
Let’s break down some of the goals in these past two contests. The first goal in the Sabres’ game was scored by defenseman Duncan Keith. It was a smart play where he followed up on a rebound for his fourth tally of the season, doubling his goal production from last season.
The forwards on the ice were Toews, Saad and Kane. So on this shift Kane was subbing for Hayden on the top line. Toews won the faceoff, Kane recovered the puck and passed it to center, it hit Toews’ stick and goaltender Carter Hutton’s pads, and the rest is history. Kane earned a secondary assist on the play.
The second goal occurred with Kane playing on the third line with Anisimov and Kahun. Goalie Corey Crawford made a nice save and defenseman Carl Dahlstrom recovered the puck. He passed it to Kane, who forwarded it to Kahun, who sprung Anisimov for a breakaway. Once again, Kane tallied a secondary assist. Oh, by the way, with that assist he surpassed Steve Larmer for fourth on the Blackhawks’ all-time points list with 924.
— NHL (@NHL) March 8, 2019
Against the Stars, Kane was double-shifting on the second line with DeBrincat and Strome. He and DeBrincat worked their magic for a give-and-go goal which ended up being the game-winner.
In both contests, Kane had more ice time than anyone else on the team, including defensemen (25:13 and 24:50 minutes, respectively). Yeah, I’d say the Blackhawks’ success is directly tied to Kane’s contributions.
Grinders Getting It Done
Kampf’s return must have been the needed ingredient for the fourth line, because this trio looked especially solid these last few tilts. Against the Sabres, Kampf, Kruger and Kunitz were all on the ice for over 10 minutes, which hasn’t been the case for the fourth line in the past. Colliton was impressed with their play.
I really liked the checking line, [Kampf’s] line. They were great. They went head to head with [Jack] Eichel all night. We looked pretty under control throughout the whole game. I think that’s been an issue for us lately playing against top competition. That’s been hurting us. If we can get that sorted out then we got the horses on the other lines to come through.
This line took it one step further Saturday as they provided the first goal of the game. Kunitz and Kampf combined for a beauty.
Kampf scored this goal, but Kunitz also recorded five shots on goal along with this primary assist. Once again, all three players were on the ice for over 10 minutes, taking on the Stars’ top lines. This looks to be a good combination moving forward.
Crawford Shaking off the Rust
Crawford started in both of these last two contests. Saturday’s matchup was his fourth game since coming back from a concussion. It was announced last Tuesday that Cam Ward will be out seven-to-ten days with a knee injury, and Collin Delia was therefore called up on an emergency basis.
But the Hawks are nonetheless giving Crawford the net so he can find his groove again. He combined for an .854 save percentage (SV%) and allowed 13 goals in his first three starts. That’s less than ideal. He simply hasn’t been as sharp as he used to be.
“I don’t think I’m there yet,” Crawford said when asked if he’s seeing the puck as well as he used to. “But I’m trying to feel better every day and compete. I mean there’s really no answer. I am where I am right now, and I’ve just got to work to (get) to where my game was.” (from ‘Despite struggles, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Crawford not about to doubt himself’ – The Daily Herald – 3/10/19)
Saturday was a step in the right direction for Crawford. He looked focused and strong, stopping 26-of-27 shots for a .963 SV%. Let’s hope Crow can continue to improve.
I hope you’re all still with me, because there are some pretty noteworthy notes coming out of these last two wins.
- The Blackhawks’ power play is in a bit of a funk of late. They’re zero-for-eight in the last two tilts and allowed a shorthanded goal against the Sabres. Overcoming this slump could be a key factor to providing more wins.
- On a more positive note, the penalty kill unit hasn’t allowed a goal against in the last two matchups. It certainly helps that the Hawks didn’t commit any penalties against the Stars! That’s one way to do it. They were two-for-two on the kill against the Sabres.
- Anisimov and Perlini both added some depth scoring, as Anisimov tallied twice versus the Sabres and Perlini notched the game-tying goal to force overtime.
- The Hawks had an ugly second frame on Thursday in which they allowed three unanswered goals to the Sabres. It’s a small sample size, but since then they’ve tightened up on defense. They only allowed eight shots and one goal in the following final period. Versus the Stars, the Hawks allowed one goal and 27 shots throughout the entire game, including only five shots in the third period when the Stars were chasing the game. They also combined for 19 and 21 blocked shots, respectively, in these last two contests.
- As mentioned, the Hawks held the Stars to only one goal. The last time they only allowed one tally in a game was on Dec. 21 against the Colorado Avalanche.
The Playoff Picture
Let’s enjoy this section while we can, because we might not get a chance to do this again (I hope I’m wrong). As discussed earlier, the Hawks sit seven points out of the final Western Conference wild card spot with 14 games to go. This spot is currently held by the Minnesota Wild (74 points), who have also played one more game. Right behind them is the Arizona Coyotes, with 73 points. The Avalanche have 72 points but have also played one more game and the Edmonton Oilers are currently tied with the Hawks’ 67 points. And this will change Monday, as all five teams have a game scheduled.
The good news is that the Blackhawks face the Avalanche and the Coyotes two more times apiece before the end of the season, starting with a must-win matchup against the Coyotes on Monday night! It’s going to be a fight to the finish, and hopefully the Hawks are in it.