Close-game situations prep Hawks for the playoffs

Close-game situations prep Hawks for the playoffs
April 17, 2013, 6:30 pm
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Playoff hockey is a different beast than the regular-season fare. It’s tight. It’s intense. It doesn't allow for much wiggle room, on the ice or on the scoreboard.

So many games are won by the slimmest of margins, and the ability to win those one-goal games usually means the difference between moving on and cleaning out lockers.

The Blackhawks have gotten their share of practice in these one-goal games this season; 25 of their 42 contests have been decided by such a margin. And if their regular-season performance in them transfers to the playoffs, they should be just fine.

Chicago is 18-3-4 in one-goal games this season, second in the NHL only to Pittsburgh, which is 12-1-0.

It’s a telling stat, considering the Blackhawks--every qualifying team, actually--will see a lot of that in the postseason. If they’re leading, which they have done plenty this season, they’re holding on. If they’ve entered the third period in a tie, they’re usually pulling them out.

“Down a goal, up a goal, we find a way to come back and finish the job in the third or overtime. We’re just playing solid hockey,” Jonathan Toews said. “I think we’re hungry to play every single night.”

That hunger has manifested itself into tremendous results, especially in those one-goal games. And several factors have contributed to the good outcomes:

** Goaltending is up, as has been well-documented. Entering Thursday night’s games, Ray Emery and Corey Crawford are ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in the NHL, respectively, in goals-against average (1.91 and 1.92). Crawford is fifth overall in save percentage (.926) and Emery is ninth (.923). In past seasons, the Blackhawks went back and forth trying to find a goaltender who could hold onto those one-goal leads. This season, both have proven they can do it on any given night.

** Defense has also had a turnaround. The Blackhawks have allowed 87 goals in 42 games, an average of 2.07 goals per contest. The defense hasn’t allowed opponents many shots on goal in recent games, either, keeping their goalies busy, but not overwhelmed. “It’s huge,” Duncan Keith said. “Obviously the more we have the puck the more chances we’re going to generate and the less they’ll create. That’s the style of game we try to play, and we need to play that every night.”

** The Blackhawks' penalty kill is the antithesis of its power play: it’s working. The kill, which has allowed just one goal since March 18, is fifth in the league and coming up big at critical times. It was a source of too many goals last season; it’s in true shut-down mode this one.

The Blackhawks could clinch the West tonight if the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Anaheim Ducks in any way tonight. The Blackhawks have set themselves up for a good situation entering the playoffs. Their performances in one-goal games, if it transfers over to the postseason, could set them up for truly big things.

UPDATES

About half the Blackhawks didn’t attend Wednesday’s very optional practice, but Patrick Sharp did. The left wing missed the past two games with an upper body injury. Coach Joel Quenneville was uncertain of Sharp’s status for Friday’s game against the Nashville Predators, saying they’ll have a better idea on Sharp tomorrow.

Quenneville also didn’t announce Friday’s starting goaltender yet.

Drew LeBlanc had his first practice with the Blackhawks.