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.”

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.