Blackhawks passing 'mettle test' without Toews

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Blackhawks passing 'mettle test' without Toews

Jonathan Toews wasnt sidelined with his concussion long when the questions began. What were the Blackhawks going to do without their captain? How were they possibly going to get through this trying stretch of the season while hes out?

The sky was supposed to fall. The Blackhawks were supposed to fall away, or at least fall out of the playoff picture. It was supposed to be bad, all bad, right?

Wrong. Despite losing a big part of their lineup with their captain out, the Blackhawks are still finding ways to win.

The Blackhawks got another big character win on Tuesday night, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Blues 4-3 in a shootout. After going 1-3-0 in their first four games without Toews the Blackhawks are now 5-1-1 in their last seven games. The points andor victories have come against good teams with good goaltending, and most have come in comeback fashion.

But theyre getting it done, and it speaks volumes for their late-season mettle.

It didnt start off well (without him). But the last few games we realized we wanted to put it together and start winning some games for him, said Patrick Kane, whos risen to the task of No. 1-center duties in Toews absence. The last (three) games weve been down in the third period, weve come back and weve found ways to get points. And were only going to get better when he comes back.

The Blackhawks have weathered the loss by playing a team game. Kanes been strong at the top and Marcus Kruger is growing into the No. 2 center spot fast. The Hawks best players have been just that. The defense has gotten a boost with Johnny Oduyas arrival, and the pairs are playing with confidence.

Even the rookies, who have had to learn a lot in a hurry, have contributed their share. Theyve taken advantage of the opportunity.

Other guys get a chance to step up and play, get extra time. In the long run we can look at it as a positive, Marian Hossa said. When Johnny comes back those guys will have experience. And when the playoffs come they know what to expect.

The pack mentality has worked.

We found ways to adapt our game and get our team winning, Bryan Bickell said. No individual can take his spot. Hes our leader, one of the best players in the league. It takes a team effort to fill in what weve been missing with him.

The Blackhawks arent the first team to lose key pieces at critical times. The good teams adapt to losing players, especially their superstars. It hasnt always been pretty and it hasnt always been easy, but the Blackhawks are finding ways to win without their leader.

Right now, theyre passing the mettle test.

Its nice to think about it that way, that youre winning games without a big piece in your lineup, Kane said. And when you know hes coming back soon, its exciting.

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott's return boosts Bulls' bench

Doug McDermott wasn’t exactly hunting for his first shot, but the first time he touched the ball in an NBA game in nearly a month wasn’t the optimal situation for him to let one fly.

It wasn’t in transition where he runs to an opening behind the 3-point line, nor was it a drive-and-kick situation where the help defense collapsed and left him open. It was a regular, simple, pass to the perimeter and McDermott’s defender was in reasonable proximity with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

He launched and the crowd soon roared its approval as his sweet jumper was sorely missed by the Bulls bench brigade—and moments later when he ran the floor for a fearless layup that caused Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to call a timeout, McDermott showed he missed the United Center crowd too, calling for more noise on his way to the bench.

“Anytime you have a guy like Doug, he comes back and makes his first 3, that’s hard to do,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He stepped up with confidence on that first shot. I’m sure he had a lot of nerves getting back out there.”

Missing 12 games and suffering two concussions, McDermott looked right at home in 25 minutes of run Thursday as the Bulls were able to rely on their reserves in some form in their 95-91 win over the previously perfect road warriors known as the Spurs.

“We defended and kept them off the foul line,” McDermott said. “Coach (Jim) Boylen was with them, so we feel we know them and I think all this time they were missing my defense.”

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The last statement was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the Bulls’ bench production was certainly missing in action while he was out with the concussion protocol. So much so that his return prompted the Bulls’ coaching staff to call out the reserves in the morning shootaround, demanding more.

“It’s definitely Dwyane (Wade) and Jimmy (Butler) and (Rajon) Rondo (but) the coaching staff kinda called out our bench like, we gotta have you tonight, bench,” McDermott said. “We took that to heart, we were really locked in.”

Seemingly his presence aided the Bulls’ spirits and production, as the Bulls’ bench had the least effective scoring bench in the NBA since Nov. 13, the day after McDermott hit the unforgiving floor against the Wizards for his second concussion this season.

Their net rating ranks ahead of only the Wizards, Mavericks and Nets, who are a combined 17-45 this season. Their effective field goal percentage, which takes into account 3-pointers, is worst in the league in that span (42.3 percent).

When McDermott was healthy for that smaller sample size, the Bulls’ bench ranked fifth in offensive efficiency, seventh in net rating, and fifth in efficient field goal percentage. Whether McDermott – and his absence – was directly related to those numbers, it’s clear the Bulls are better when they have their best reserve – and only true floor spacers on the second unit – on the court.

“We’re all professionals and we want to help the guys who are busting their butts in the first unit to get us the leads,” McDermott said. “Tonight we did a great job of sustaining it. We take it personal when teams come back on us.”

[MORE: Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls]

Nikola Mirotic was four of eight from the field, and Cristiano Felicio seems to be back in Fred Hoiberg’s good graces as he’s carved out a rotation spot for himself with nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

It seems as if Hoiberg will stick with this rotation of players, at least for a little while until Michael Carter-Williams returns from his injuries. If McDermott is the mark of the Bulls’ bench going from bottom feeder to adequate, it should show this month.

“When he’s out there on the floor and we get him coming off screens, it forces the defense to shift as another person they need to be aware of,” Hoiberg said. “It opens up driving lanes for our guys. It was great to have Doug back with us.”

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

Morning Update: Bulls beat Spurs in Pau Gasol's return to Chicago

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