Hawks' ability to maintain edge proves successful once again

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Hawks' ability to maintain edge proves successful once again

As the Chicago Blackhawks tried to figure out ways to beat Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen on Thursday night, they couldnt help but admire the guy.

It was almost fun to watch how good he was playing, just making acrobatic save after save, Patrick Kane said afterward.

Sure, that came after the Blackhawks came back to beat said goaltender, 3-2, in overtime. But what strikes me about that comment is this: the Blackhawks saw what Lehtonen was doing, they respected him for it, but they never lost their edge or stopped trying to beat him. And eventually it paid off.

Theres a certain calmness, a team-wide focus to these Blackhawks through the first four games. Theres no panic, no massive worry and no apprehension coming through in their play.

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It was a really good game for us and I think their tender was amazing tonight, goaltender Corey Crawford said. We just kept sticking to the same play, kept going, and our guys did a great job not getting frustrated. The missed opportunities or big saves sometimes get to you. But tonight was great. We kept going, got some big goals and an amazing play by Kaners at the end there.

The Blackhawks are off to their best start in 40 years, thanks to a combination of solid team play, better special teams and, yes, those four rolling lines that recently had Marian Hossa reminiscing all the way back to 2010. Its a familiar group, one that hasnt changed much since last season. But thats proving to be a good thing.

You look at the team we have now, its pretty much the same as last year. Its a team that had a good season, had over 100 points, underachieved in the playoffs and thought we couldve had a better season, Kane said. You put the same group together, theyre going to have a chip on their shoulder to come back and prove to everyone that it can be the team to do something special. Hopefully thats what we have in here.

Yes, there are going to be bumps in the road and (gasp) losses at some point. But the Blackhawks are playing like a cohesive, confident group with something to prove; and thats going to help them plenty through this 48-game sprint of a season.

The power play takes a positive turn

Patrick Sharp recently talked about the Blackhawks special teams, including that power play that was so beleaguered last season.

Yeah, its been a topic of conversation for a long time, he said.

Well, it still is. Except this time, its for a good reason. The Blackhawks power play, a glaring Achilles heel last season, has been a boon in the early going. Theyve scored at least one power-play goal in each of their first four games, including all three of their goals in Thursday nights 3-2 overtime victory over the Dallas Stars.

Six power-play goals in the first four games: not bad for a team that managed 42 man-advantage goals in 82 games last season.

Duncan Keith to the rescue

Corey Crawford was solid in getting his third victory of the season, stopping 21 of 23 including a penalty shot. But a little help never hurts.

An Alex Goligoski shot trickled through Crawfords pads and toward the goal as the final second-period seconds ticked away. Duncan Keith stopped it, clearing the puck as the horn sounded.

That guy, hes aware all over the ice, he gets to things so quick, Crawford said of Keith. He saved my rear end. I owe him one now, I guess.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Avalanche tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Colorado Avalanche tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Keep it simple.

There is no team in the league that scores fewer goals per game (2.00) and allows more goals per game (3.32) than the Avalanche, who are 4-18-1 in their last 23 games, including 1-7-0 in their past eight. The Blackhawks need to keep it simple, get bodies in front of the net and take advantage on special teams against a team that ranks in the bottom-seven in both the power play and penalty kill.

2. Will Jonathan Toews' success against Colorado continue?

It's been a tough year for the Blackhawks captain, who has only seven goals and 21 points in 37 games, including three points in his last seven. Earlier this season he went 13 consecutive games without a goal, and snapped that on Dec. 23 against Colorado in a 2-1 overtime loss. He recorded a season-high seven shots on goal in that game, and has scored a goal in each of his last four contests against the Avalanche. They seem to be his slumpbuster, so perhaps he'll come through again.

3. Marian Hossa's impact.

In the first meeting of the season, Hossa scored two goals in a 4-0 win over Colorado. In the second, the Blackhawks were without him after he was sidelined with an upper-body injury, and fell 2-1 in overtime. The Blackhawks are nearly at full strength this time around, with Marcus Kruger the lone injured player who's recovering from an apparent hand injury.

4. Nathan MacKinnon.

After a solid showing at the World Cup of Hockey last fall, MacKinnon was considered a strong candidate to have a breakout season with a new head coach that preaches an up-tempo style of play, right up MacKinnon's ally. But he hasn't reached that level yet, with 28 points in 41 games. Not bad, but not great by his standards as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013. He scored the overtime winner and added an assist in last month's victory against Chicago at the United Center.

5. Short shifts.

This will be the third meeting of the year between the two teams, but the first one in Colorado. Due to the high altitude in the Mile-High City, expect Joel Quenneville to distribute the minutes more evenly throughout their four lines and intstruct the Blackhawks to be short with their shifts, no longer than 40 seconds.

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Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Blackhawks' rough weekend 'a little bit of a wake-up call'

Patrick Kane was summing up the Blackhawks' weekend, one that didn't go well in terms of points.

"Good way to kind of judge ourselves, where we're at," he said Sunday night. "Might be a little bit of a wake-up call to see how good we really are."

Well, in a way, it is. You can't really compare Friday's loss to Washington and Sunday's loss to Minnesota on performance; the Blackhawks didn't show up for the first game and were much better in the second. Nevertheless, it was the same result in each. The Blackhawks' lengthy hold on first place in the Western Conference ended, with the Wild taking over following Sunday's 3-2 victory.

It's not a sound-the-alarm situation, but the Blackhawks are certainly cognizant of the missed opportunity last weekend and that they came up short against the league's best.

Artem Anisimov agreed with Kane's assessment.

"We just need to play better. All four lines need to play better in all areas of the ice. Just be better in the little things," Anisimov said. "Back check, put stick in the right position, box the guy out, short shifts. All little things need to be better."

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Many of the little things that were absent against the Capitals were back against the Wild. But coach Joel Quenneville wasn't happy with mistakes made on goals allowed, especially the first two. And while Kane and the second line were a consistent scoring threat against the Wild, the other three lines weren't. It's a problem that's plagued the Blackhawks a good deal this season, even when they were stringing together victories.

There is no reason to think that, because of this weekend's results, the Blackhawks are going to falter against strong teams. They've done well against others already this season. They beat Montreal earlier this season, when the Canadiens were healthy and steamrolling everyone. They beat the New York Rangers when the Rangers and former Blackhawks backup goaltender Antti Raanta were on their respective hot streaks.

Still, Kane's analysis is correct: This should get the Blackhawks' attention. The Wild have beaten the Blackhawks in eight consecutive regular-season games now and will face them three more times this season. They have two more meetings with the Edmonton Oilers, who beat them soundly in November.

The Blackhawks' long reign atop the Western Conference standings is over. They’re currently second in the Central Division, with an eight-point cushion over the St. Louis Blues. The Blackhawks have done fairly well this season. But this weekend was a reminder that they can be better.

"The game (on Friday) was kind of like a shock to the system thinking maybe you're one of the top teams in the league, or being able to compete with one of the top teams, and we obviously got thoroughly outplayed. We came back (Sunday night). It was pretty even in chances. We might've even had more so, just kind of didn't pull it out," Kane said. "But (when) you've played two of the better teams in the league and lose, there's got to be room for improvement, right?"