Despite leading Western Conference, Blackhawks want more consistent play in season's second half

Despite leading Western Conference, Blackhawks want more consistent play in season's second half

The Blackhawks headed into Saturday liking how they fared the two previous nights, taking four points and busting out of a pre- and post-Christmas slump.

Are they happy with their overall game? Well, not quite. Just past the midway point of their season — they played their 42nd game on Friday, a 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes — the Blackhawks will take where they are in the Western Conference standings. But they know that playing complete games was an issue through the first 42 and that they have to shore up a few things in the final 40.

“I think the last couple we’ve started well and before that, we weren’t starting the way we liked,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We just have to find that consistency, making sure you start on time, making sure you’re setting the tone for the games so you don’t feel like you’re chasing it the whole night.”

The starts, or lack thereof, have been a nonstop narrative for the Blackhawks this season. The Blackhawks were out-shot in many first periods this season, though we have to be careful in judging off that. In a lot of those games, Friday night’s included, they led after one despite being out-shot by a solid margin. It’s more about the lack of energy they’ve showed and the quality scoring opportunities they’ve allowed.

What’s helped the Blackhawks out of those sluggish starts is their comeback ability and, more than anything, their goaltending. What the Blackhawks are ultimately looking for in the second half is more consistent outings to help that goaltending.

“We need to play all 60 because in the past we’ve had bad starts but good finishes and sometimes we have good starts but not good finishes,” Artem Anisimov said. “We just need to play all 60 minutes, how we can play.”

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There’s another, more positive way to look at the Blackhawks’ first half. Despite a horrendous start to the penalty kill, they’re leading the conference. Despite several key injuries (Jonathan Toews missed nine games, van Riemsdyk missed 20, Corey Crawford was out 10 and Marian Hossa missed five), they’re still in good shape. Despite less depth at forward and the ongoing search for a top-line left wing, the Blackhawks are winning.

Credit young players for progressing well, perhaps faster than expected. Ryan Hartman is emerging as a strong player who has seven goals and draws more penalties than he commits. Vinnie Hinostroza is gaining confidence in his game and trust from his coaches.

But if you’re looking to make the postseason and go on another playoff run, you don’t rest on being satisfied with where you are. The Blackhawks have scratched and clawed and goaltended their way to a very good first half. They’ll have to be better in a few areas to replicate that in the second half.

“Obviously we have to step everything up,” Dennis Rasmussen said. “Play better as we get to the second half here, work on the small things and do them right.”

Blackhawks agree to terms with Nathan Noel on entry-level contract

Blackhawks agree to terms with Nathan Noel on entry-level contract

The Blackhawks strengthened their organizational depth Thursday, announcing the signing of forward Nathan Noel to a three-year entry-level contract that kicks in next season and runs through the 2019-20 campaign. 

Noel, a fourth-round draft pick (No. 113 overall) in 2016, tied a career high with 24 goals — including six game winners — and added 26 assists for 50 points in 52 games during his fourth regular season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He was sidelined for a little more than a month in December and January due to an upper-body injury.

The 19-year-old center has raised his game in the postseason, racking up eight goals and 18 assists in 33 games from 2015-17, including six assists in 12 contests so far during the 2017 QMJHL playoffs. Across four years at Saint John, he amassed 208 points (85 goals, 123 assists) in 242 career regular-season games.

Noel is teammates with forward Matthew Highmore, who leads the Sea Dogs in scoring and was signed by the Blackhawks in March to a three-year deal as an undrafted free agent.

Noel is an undersized forward at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, but he's a fast skater with offensive upside. He'll likely start the 2017-18 season in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, who desperately needed scoring last year. 

Blackhawks' Nick Schmaltz added to USA's roster for 2017 IIHF World Championship

Blackhawks' Nick Schmaltz added to USA's roster for 2017 IIHF World Championship

Nick Schmaltz will be joining Blackhawks teammate Trevor van Riemsdyk on Team USA at the 2017 IIHF World Championship, the club announced Thursday.

It will be his first career appearance on the U.S. men's national team and third time representing his country in world-championship play, most recently winning a bronze medal at the 2016 World Juniors. He scored two goals and added six assists in seven games during that tournament.

Schmaltz just completed his first professional season with the Blackhawks, where he tallied six goals and 22 assists in 61 games. 

After the year ended, he spoke about the possibility of playing for USA in this tournament and what it would mean to him.

"I think it's a great tournament," Schmaltz said. "You get to play with a lot of great players. Look like a lot of great players are going to the tournament, so it's definitely a big stage. It would be a fun tournament."

The roster now includes 13 forwards, seven defensemen and three goaltenders. Among the other NHLers going for the Americans: Danny DeKeyser, Noah Hanifin, Jimmy Howard, Dylan Larkin, Anders Lee, Charlie McAvoy, Connor Murphy, Brock Nelson and Jacob Trouba.

Blackhawks forwards Marcus Kruger (Sweden) and Artemi Panarin (Russia) will also compete in the tournament, which begins May 5 and runs until May 21 in Cologne, Germany and Paris, France.