Gail Kauchak The Hockey Writers
Blackhawks Hit All-Star Break Trending Up
I really, really, really wanted to be writing about the Chicago Blackhawks’ six-game win streak today. But alas, it was not to be. Former Blackhawks’ head coach Joel Quenneville came to town with his Florida Panthers and spoiled the run on the last matchup before the All-Star break and bye week. The Blackhawks will have to settle for a five-game streak (their season-high), and 9 wins of their last 13 games as they regroup for the final stretch of the season.
Related – Quenneville Coaches Panthers to 4-3 Win Over Blackhawks
All is not lost. 9 wins out of 13 is certainly commendable. The Blackhawks are playing pretty good hockey right now. They’ve put a lot of pieces together and are trending in the right direction. Let’s examine some of the positive developments.
Blackhawks’ Last Six Games
Vs. Anaheim Ducks, Sat. 1/11, Win 4-2
@ Ottawa Senators, Tues. 1/14, Win 3-2 (OT)
@ Montreal Canadiens, Wed. 1/15, Win 4-1
@ Toronto Maple Leafs, Sat. 1/18, Win 6-2
Vs. Winnipeg Jets, Sun. 1/19, Win 5-2
Vs. Florida Panthers, Tues. 1/21, Loss 4-3
Four Goals Please
As seen from the list of games above, the Blackhawks are scoring goals again. If you haven’t noticed, putting the puck in the net generally goes hand in hand with winning. Of these last six matchups, the Blackhawks have tallied four or more goals in four of them, and won four times. When they scored three or less goals, they won once and lost once.
Let’s take an even larger sample size. In the last 25 games, starting in December, the Blackhawks have won 11 of the 12 games where they scored four or more goals (the exception being the 7-5 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 2). When scoring three or less goals, they have lost 10 out of 13 contests.
Four goals seems to be the lucky number. But putting up four or more goals game in and game out isn’t always easy. Fortunately, the Blackhawks have a number of players who are quite capable in that department.
Goals, Assists & Points Adding Up
Over this recent six-game stretch, the top line of Jonathan Toews, Dominik Kubalik, and Drake Caggiula has been on fire. Kubalik leads the way with seven goals and an assist (8 points), but Toews is the point leader with 11 (4G, 7A). Caggiula has made a pleasant contribution of three scores and two helpers.
Let’s not forget Patrick Kane, who technically plays on the second line but pops up all over the place as head coach Jeremy Colliton sees fit. He’s in third place with seven points (1G, 6A). And of course there’s that one assist that turned out to be his 1000th point.
Brandon Saad has only been back from his ankle injury for three games, but he’s picked up right where he left off with strong and solid play. Inserted on the second line, he’s credited with two goals, both involving Kane and Ryan Carpenter (2A). While Alex DeBrincat appears to be in a slump (especially scoring), he’s still chipped in with a tally and three helpers.
The back end has also stepped up with offensive contributions. Defensemen Erik Gustafsson has six points (1G, 5A) in the last six games. Connor Murphy and Slater Koekkoek each boast four helpers. The depth players are holding their own as well. Zack Smith broke out with two goals against the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Nylander and Kirby Dach have both recorded a goal and two assists after hefty droughts.
For the most part the Blackhawks have four lines rolling and the defense supporting and contributing. Everyone is starting to gel and work together and it’s showing on the scoresheet. There’s a well-rounded effort. Now to sustain what they’ve been doing.
Reinforcements Are Helping
Yes, deploying a nuclear line of Kubalik/Toews/Kane in the past worked pretty well. For the top line. But there wasn’t much depth beyond that with Caggiula, Saad, and Dylan Strome all out with injuries.
But now Caggiula and Saad are both back. Caggiula is helping reinforce that top line, leaving Saad and Kane to do some damage on the second line. And having players such as DeBrincat and Dach on the third line gives it an added scoring threat.
Blackhawks’ Recent Forward Lines and Defensive Pairings
Getting Dylan Strome back after the break will give the Blackhawks an added boost. He would likely slot back in as the second-line center. Perhaps he’d be reunited with his buddy DeBrincat. Saad could therefore move up to the top line, leaving Caggiula to bolster the bottom-six. More than likely Matthew Highmore will get sent back down to the Rockford IceHogs, and maybe a few more healthy scratches for Nylander aren’t out of the question. Oh, and there’s Brandon Hagel (called up twice but never played) who will probably get a look at some point in the near future.
Related- Chicago Blackhawks New Year’s Resolutions for 2020
Options, options, options. These are good to have, and by the looks of it will only make the Blackhawks stronger.
Defense Stabilized With Maatta and Koekkoek
The Blackhawks have finally found the formula for the third defensive pairing! You must have at least two double letters in your last name!
But seriously, folks. It appears Colliton has gotten as close as he’s probably going to get when it comes to balanced defensive pairings. Veteran Duncan Keith is an excellent mentor for the young Adam Boqvist. Good ole reliable Murphy balances out the opposite in Gustafsson. But the recent third pairing of Olli Maatta and Dennis Gilbert has been a constant liability.
Enter Slater Koekkoek. A frequent healthy scratch and what most would therefore consider the seventh defenseman, Colliton took another chance on the 25-year-old for the matchup against the Nashville Predators on Jan. 9. Koekkoek was ready for the call.
He was tasked with playing on the right side (his off side) alongside Olli Maatta, who is more comfortable and effective on the left side. But over the last seven games it seems to be working out quite well. Said Colliton of Koekkoek,
This latest opportunity that he’s had, he’s found another level to his performance and he’s made it impossible for us to take him out. Him and Maatta, since they’ve been reinserted, they’ve been great and really added some depth to our group and [become] a big part of why we’re having success lately. (from ‘Switch to right-side defense has sparked Slater Koekkoek’s excellent recent stretch’, The Chicago Sun-Times -1/20/20)
As referenced above Koekkoek has been a welcome surprise offensively, contributing four assists in the last five games. Maatta, meanwhile, has recorded a goal and an assist since being paired with Koekkoek.
Milestones Bringing Blackhawks Together
There’s always that intangible of chemistry with any team, and the Blackhawks appear to be taking advantage of every opportunity to bond and become a cohesive unit.
Take Kane’s 1000th point, for example. In this writer’s mind it was highly appropriate Kane got the secondary assist. There were therefore two other players that technically should’ve gotten more credit on that sequence. If it wasn’t for Carpenter in the slot and Saad with the finish, Kane’s point wouldn’t have happened. He might be one of the best hockey players in the world, but this is a team game and Kane still needs help.
Toews organized the bench-clearing so the entire team could celebrate with Kane. Goaltender Robin Lehner, who in many ways has become the spokesperson for the Blackhawks, discussed what it meant for everyone.
It was a special moment for all of us to share it with him. He’s obviously a helluva hockey player, but he’s even (a) better person. He deserves it, and everyone was truly and genuinely happy for him. It was cool to be a part of.
Numerous teammates congratulated Kane on their public Twitter accounts by posting pictures of goal celebrations with him.
There have been other personal achievements the team has rallied around that give them motivation. Like the fact Kubalik leads all rookies with 21 goals. Or that Dach scored his first goal in 14 games on this 19th birthday last Tuesday night. And what a beauty it was!
And let’s not forget there are a few more milestones on the horizon. Toews is sitting on 799 points, with 800 sure to come shortly after the break. Duncan Keith is at 99 goals and hoping for 100 sooner rather than later. He’s also closing in on 600 assists. He currently has 597, which is good for 10th in franchise history.
This is the kind of stuff that’s good to see. Hopefully it will give the Blackhawks extra incentive as they move forward together.
The loss to the Panthers and Coach Q was disappointing. It also came with a lot of build-up and emotional baggage. But it’s over now. The Blackhawks can move on, and instead focus on everything they’ve been doing right.
Related – Blackhawks’ Roundtable: Ideal Top-Six, Quenneville’s Return & More
It all starts up again on Feb. 1 against the Arizona Coyotes. The Blackhawks have 31 more games to get into the playoffs, and it can’t start soon enough.
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