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.”