Crawford's performance one of many positives

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Crawford's performance one of many positives

The Blackhawks like the way they played, and for the most part, there's not much to complain about over their final 40 minutes last night in Vancouver.

If they keep playing as they did over the final two periods, they should win in Calgary and Edmonton, and 2-0-1 would be the next-best-thing to start this nine-game test. Thing is, they need to start playing like that all the time, make the "ifs" a non-factor, and, to be blunt, getting one of a potential six points these last three games against two teams now above you in the Western standings can't continue. Not when Nashville starts the second half by storming from behind in the third period against a desperate Wild team in Minnesota. Not when Detroit starts their own western Canadian swing with a win in Calgary. It's just the bottom line of what they're dealing with.

We'll chalk up the first period defense to some six-day rust. That was also a pretty good team on the other side, much as we might not want to admit it (and even better with the goalie they started). Once the Hawks got their bearings back under them, they played well, and carried the action the majority of the time. It also seemed evident to this pair of eyes that Patrick Sharp was still feeling his way back, if not being a little tentative, after three weeks away. Throw in a brand new center with him and Marian Hossa, and we'll see how that line progresses, and how much Brendan Morrison can provide.

Until we get that answer, Stan Bowman has to continue to make adding a top-four defenseman the ideal priority. The main one who was on the market, Carolina's Tim Gleason, re-upped for four years with the 'Canes, so that field shrinks and the competition for what's left becomes tougher. So before we start plucking names on our wish lists, think again whom and how many you'd be willing to sacrifice from among the young crop (Kruger? Hayes? Olsen? Morin? Pirri?) to beat out the competition for that piece -- whether it's on the blueline, or another forward if Morrison's not the answer. John Scott barely played last night, and if you picked him over O'Donnell and Lepisto, the other five (especially the top two) can't be asked to suck up all the unbalanced minutes.

It was a confidence-building game for Corey Crawford. His performance was one of a handful of positives to take out of Vancouver. But it only got the Blackhawks one point. I'll still take a team that's healthy and hitting its stride come playoff time over one that finds life easy during the regular season. It's all about that build-up. But as we flip the calendar to February, the rest of the teams in front of the Hawks don't seem to care about that mindset.

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and have eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the playoffs three times from 2013-15.

But it's the Wild that NHL coaches believe will win the Western Conference this season as we approach the trade deadline.

In his annual midseason poll, TSN's Bob McKenzie surveyed 25 of 30 coaches to vote on multiple categories, such as the league's best player and the team most likely to win it all.

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According to the survey, 11 coaches predicted the Wild will win the West while the Blackhawks and Sharks tied for second with four votes.

As for winning the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals are the favorite, earning 10 votes, followed closely by the reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins with eight. The Wild and Blackhawks rounded out the poll with three and two votes, respectively.

Joel Quenneville earned one vote as the NHL's best coach, which is three fewer votes than he had last year, despite this year being arguably his most challenging — and best — coaching job since arriving in Chicago, given the youth on the roster.

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Incentive. For many young prospects trying to latch onto an NHL roster, there's already plenty of it there. It's a chance at playing on a bigger stage, a bigger opportunity for a career and, if you're on a two-way contract, a bigger paycheck.

Tanner Kero already had that incentive but in November, received an even more special one: he and his wife welcomed their first child, a boy. Now when Kero plays, it's not just what it means for him. It's what it means for his family.

"It's been a fun experience. It's something a little extra special that you play for," Kero said. "You get your mind away from the game when you go home. You just relax and enjoy that part of life. It's just something extra to play for and it's been special."

Kero has been making the most of his second shot with the Blackhawks, recording two goals and two assists on the Blackhawks' dads trip. That included a three-point night against the Colorado Avalanche and a building chemistry with line mates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa. 

Coach Joel Quenneville likes what he's seen thus far.

"He did a great job for us," Quenneville said. "Defensively, we like his availability in his own end. We like his positioning offensively. He had a nice couple of games to finish the dads trip but he's been good for us. I like the consistency."

Rockford coach Ted Dent said Kero started playing better in November, not long after Kero became a dad. Whether or not that had anything to do with it Dent didn't know, but the results were there nonetheless.

"I think he'd be the first to say his season started off slow with us and he finally caught his stride, maybe 15-20 games into our season," Dent said. "He was skating better, skating stronger, he had more confidence with the puck and things just came together."

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Kero's line is a good blend of familiarity, defense and skill. Kero and Hinostroza are good friends who played together plenty in Rockford. Hossa is... well, Hossa, and pretty much benefits any line mate.

"It's been good," Kero said. "We've been trying to continue, get some secondary scoring. But we also want to be relied on defensively, be counted on to play in big situations, a defensive draw, at the end of a period or end of a game. We're trying to focus on being good defensively, being simple and hard to play against. We're getting fortunate enough to contribute offensively as well."

Hossa, whose game-winning goal in Boston came off a Kero feed, said the 24-year-old is adapting well.

"Since they called him up he took it to his advantage. Right now he's playing the 200-foot game, [he's] real smart in our zone, doesn't panic, makes the right play at the right time, and he's showing more offensive abilities," Hossa said. "It seems like things are going well for him and we're glad we can help as a third line right now in scoring some important goals. With young players, that's definitely big."

Kero's made an impact and an impression with the Blackhawks. Quenneville said on Sunday that, even when Marcus Kruger returns from his injury, Kero will likely remain where he is – "I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

"That comment tells you the trust level he's gained in Kero," Dent said. "I knew over time that Kero was a player that Q was going to love. I've gotten to know Q over the years and in talking to him I know what he likes in players and it was just a matter of time because Kero's a responsible two-way player. He doesn't cheat the game and he's very aware of his defensive responsibilities and that's what Q loves, first and foremost. A lot of us coaches love that."

Kero is making strides in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He already had plenty of incentive to make an impact on this roster. Now a new father, he has that much more of one.