On deck: Two tests against the West

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On deck: Two tests against the West

The Blackhawks sidestepped The Long Island Trap Thursday. Yeah, they blew a 2-0 lead, and needed overtime, but overall it was still a solid road effort against a team whose only two losses in their last six games have come in extra time against the Hawks.

The fact theyd already beaten New York a week ago and were skating in a building with an awful atmosphere showed they were mentally and emotionally locked-in, and they seem to have done that better on the road of late (four straight wins) than at home (1-1-1 since returning from the Circus Trip).

Next up, theyll need to carry that over in their next two games against two of the best in the West one expected, the other a surprise. San Joses been spinning its wheels a bit of late, but got their second win in their last six Thursday vs. Dallas. The Hawks will be looking to avenge their 1-0 loss in a well-played game in the Shark Tank on Thanksgiving Eve, when Antti Niemi shut them out. The Hawks have a 7-point edge on the Sharks, but San Jose has four games in-hand.

After that Sunday game, its two more days off before a trip for their first up-close look at the Wild story in Minnesota. The Wild and Hawks have each played a conference-high 29 games, but Minny has a three-point edge, courtesy of a six-game win streak the last three of which have opened a 5-game trip (Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles). Theyll finish it off Saturday in Phoenix, then Tuesday in Winnipeg before coming home to finish off three games in four nights against the Hawks, so thats an advantage the visitors should have.

But while the Hawks are trying to climb up the defensive rankings (13th in the West entering the weekend), the Wild have done it with D under new head coach Mike Yeo. Their 2.14 goals-against average is just behind St. Louis as second-best in the West. The Hawks were able to solve that with perhaps their most complete game of the season last Saturday in St. Louis. Lets see if they can bring the same type of game in these next two outings. San Joses GAA, by the way, is fifth in the conference (2.40).

Even though theyve been inconsistent of late, the Blackhawks have still managed to stay near the top of the West. Some goaltending (and defensive) questions have come up, and theyll need more offensive balance, as I wrote after Thursdays win. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa all enter the weekend among the NHLs top-17 point producers (Toews tied for 2nd in goals, Kane tied for first in assists).

After bursting out of the gate, it seems at times this Hawks team needs to be challenged be it with the opponent theyre playing, or needing to bounce back after unexpected setbacks. They've hit a few bumps along the way this past month and these next two games should provide an interesting gauge on whether the arrows definitely pointing up.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.