Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to avoid season sweep vs. Jets tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks look to avoid season sweep vs. Jets tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

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Five Things to Watch:

1. One last crack.

In four meetings this season, the Jets have taken eight of eight points from the Blackhawks, with three of those wins coming at the United Center. In those games, the Blackhawks have been outscored 14-5, their most recent a 5-3 loss in which they squandered a third-period lead by allowing three unanswered goals. Chicago will gets its final stab at Winnipeg tonight, and look to avoid the season sweep.

 

2. Can new top line sustain success?

The first line of Nick Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik was terrific in Wednesday's 4-3 overtime win over the Minnesota Wild. The trio combined for three goals and three assists, with Toews potting the game winner. The Blackhawks captain now has five goals and seven assists in his last eight games, matching his point total in his previous 26 contests. Getting contributions from this line is key. Let's see if it continues, and how long it lasts.

3. Is Corey Crawford back?

Before undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Dec. 3, Crawford was among the league's best goaltenders in many statistical categories. Since his return on Dec. 23, he hasn't been that great, owning a 9-7-1 record in 17 starts and finishing with an .894 save percentage in December. He turned in arguably his best performance since returning by stopping 35 of 38 shots in a 4-3 overtime win over Minnesota, stealing not only one point for the Blackhawks, but two while preventing the Wild to get an extra one. It would've been a four-point swing with a regulation loss to a team that leads the Central Division by five points and has two games in hand. 

4. Blackhawks power play heating up.

After going 1-for-20 (5 percent) on the power play in their previous eight games, the Blackhawks have scored at least one goal on the man advantage in their last three games, all of which have resulted in wins. They're 4-for-8 during that span, good for a 50 percent success rate. Their season total has improved to 18.9, which ranks 16th in the league.

5. So is Winnipeg's.

Like Chicago, the Jets have been cashing in on their power play chances as of late. They've scored a goal on the man advantage in four of their last five games, and it's helped them win three straight games for the first time all season. Winnipeg is 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) during that span, bumping their overall percentage to 18.6, a notch below the Blackhawks for 17th.

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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.”