Blackhawks cruise past Oilers for fifth straight win

Blackhawks cruise past Oilers for fifth straight win

EDMONTON, Alberta – There have been times where the Blackhawks have gone into breaks playing so-so hockey.

They've looked tired, unmotivated, like they've flipped the calendar to their off day a few hours too early. But on Saturday, the Blackhawks looked like a team that was going to earn a few days off.

Richard Panik had two goals and an assist and Jonathan Toews added two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-1 on Saturday night. The Blackhawks went 5-1-0 on their Ice Show trip and enter the break on a five-game winning streak, three points behind the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Wild.

Patrick Kane had a goal and and two assists. Scott Darling stopped 30 of 31 shots for the victory and Artem Anisimov scored his 20th goal of the season.

The Blackhawks got steadily better on this road trip and they saved their most convincing victory on it for the end.  Patrick Maroon gave the Oilers a 1-0 lead four minutes into the game after Connor McDavid picked Niklas Hjalmarsson's pocket. That was pretty much the last time the Blackhawks were caught playing careful.

"We're playing good hockey," Darling said. "That's a super talented team with a lot of skill. We weathered the storm and took over the game. We played 200-foot hockey and that helped give me an easier night."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Indeed, when the Oilers made mistakes, they capitalized – Trevor van Riemsdyk's goal off Oscar Klefbom's gaffe was one such example. Their power play was stellar. Kane scored from behind the net on one advantage, shooting the puck off Edmonton goaltender Cam Talbot's skate. Panik cleaned up a rebound on the second, which gave the Blackhawks a 4-1 lead late in the second period.

The four-line rotation was evident again but the top line did the most damage. Panik had his second three-point night of the season – his other one was his hat trick against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 15.

"If you get a goal your confidence is high," Panik said. "When you're hot you have to keep doing it as long as it goes because if you go on a cold streak you can go on it for a while. That's what happened to me at the beginning of the season."

Considering how well the Blackhawks are playing right now you wouldn't have been surprised to hear a player or two wish they could delay the bye and keep playing. Nope. As Darling said, "we'll be back pretty quick."

"We'll use it to our advantage," Duncan Keith said. "We'll try to use it to rest up and feel as good as we can, come back and try to carry on the momentum. At the end of the day it's been a good stretch of games here lately. All four lines, defensemen and goalies are playing great. It's just something we can keep in our heads, of what we can do."

The Blackhawks have had a habit of sliding into a break. They could've done it again on Saturday, coming off big victories over the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets and playing on the second night of a back to back. Instead, whatever energy they had remaining, they used it wisely.

"Minny, which had our number going back eight games, we knew the importance of that game. Winnipeg owned four games against us and good response [Friday] night. Earlier this season we got pounded here. Good response all three games," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're certainly happy how we're going into the break. Everyone should enjoy it, knowing we put a nice standard going into it."

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Eight draft picks in about 3 ½ hours. It was a busy Saturday for the Blackhawks, and when general manager Stan Bowman talked that afternoon about the team’s Day 2 haul, he came prepared.

“I have my little cheat sheet,” Bowman said of the paper on which he had written the Blackhawks’ eight newest prospects.

After a few days’ worth of moves the Blackhawks focused on the future, taking nine players over two days at the NHL Draft. It was a successful weekend for the Blackhawks, who hosted the draft for the first time and built up assets, especially on the blue line. Five of the Blackhawks’ nine selections were defensemen.

“One of the things we talked about was looking at the market. There’s a high value on defensemen. We’re not necessarily looking at the draft but our team this year and over the next couple of years; those are the assets that are valuable around the league,” Bowman said. “Look at the trade Calgary made [for Travis Hamonic], defensemen are a valuable commodity. That was a priority coming in and we were able to accomplish it.”

What comes next

The Blackhawks got what they wanted at this weekend’s draft but the focus will soon shift, as free agency opens on July 1. It remains to be seen what the Blackhawks will have cap-wise come a week from now. Currently, according to CapFriendly.com, they’re $1.445 million over the $75 million cap. It’s doubtful the Blackhawks apply the long-term injured reserve tag on Marian Hossa during the offseason. It’s possible they could still trade Marcus Kruger to gain some space. Bowman said, one way or another, “there will be some movement.”

“We’ll bring some players in, I don’t know how many, what position or what level,” he said. “This is where there’s a lot of activity, the couple weeks in the middle of June until the middle of July. That’s when the most changes happen. We’ll go to work, now that we’re past this.”

Wait for it

The Blackhawks also have to decide whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco. Bowman said that’ll be decided by Monday.

“I’ve had discussions with both agents,” he said. “I don’t have an answer right now but we’ll have that worked out in the next day and a half.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson heard some of the rumors, but not to a large degree. The former Blackhawks defenseman wasn’t spending a lot of time on the internet reading up on his potential fate. He figured he’d still stay put in Chicago.

“But when my agent called me about the 10-team list, I understood it was serious. Stan [Bowman] wouldn’t ask for that unless they made up their mind already,” Hjalmarsson said via conference call on Saturday. “That’s when it hit me that I’m probably not going to put the Hawks jersey on anymore.”

Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s next jersey will be that of the Arizona Coyotes, who acquired him in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy on Friday. Hjalmarsson’s departure marks the end of the line for another Blackhawks core player, and this one is jarring in how it will change the team’s defense.

Speaking of change, Hjalmarsson faces a lot of it himself now. Sure, there’s the obvious change for a guy who’s played his entire career in one place. It’s new surroundings and a new team, on which he knows former Blackhawks teammate Antti Raanta and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

But the Coyotes have dealt with a lot of upheaval lately. Goaltender Mike Smith is gone. So is veteran Shane Doan. On Thursday, head coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes parted ways.

“They’re on a rebuild, a lot of new faces, lot of changes,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s tough to know what to expect but I think they’re a hungry organization that wants to win like other teams. I’m looking forward to try to contribute with playing my game, just try to get the organization back in the playoffs.”

Hjalmarsson should find chemistry with Ekman-Larsson – the two were teammates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi – and Hjalmarsson will likely play a bigger role with the Coyotes. Arizona will probably look to Hjalmarsson a lot during its rebuild, given his Cup-winning history.

The first 24 hours were full of mixed emotions of Hjalmarsson. With his limited no-move clause, he was always a likely candidate to be moved from a Blackhawks team laden will full no-move clauses. He’s turning a page, but he won’t forget his time in Chicago anytime soon.

“I’m trying to always be a positive guy,” Hjalmarsson said. “I spent my whole 20s in Chicago, 10 unbelievable years. I didn’t think I’d win three Cups. Hopefully I can get one more before my career is over. I had the best time in Chicago, enjoyed every single year, playing in front of the best fans in the league. I’ve been spoiled. Now it’s time for me and my family to move on and seize the opportunity in Arizona and create some new fond memories.”