Hawk Talk: Balancing acts for Cup defense

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Hawk Talk: Balancing acts for Cup defense

Thursday, April 7, 2011
Posted 4:51 p.m.

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

The Hockey Gods giveth and taketh. In the end - unless a team's completely snake-bitten - the bounces, the calls, and the reviews even out.

All you have to do is look at what's happened with the Blackhawks the past ten days.

March 28: Detroit could've argued why a hooking call was made against Henrik Zetterberg in the closing seconds of regulation, leading to Marian Hossa's game-winning, overtime power play goal.

Tuesday in Montreal, the overtime call against Jonathan Toews seemed (to me) borderline at best, not to mention a couple of seconds after the Bell Centre crowd began screaming its disapproval.

An even bigger issue for me is, if there's an unwritten code for players who've gained the so-called benefit of the doubt on such calls, in those crucial situations, hasn't Toews earned it? Especially against a rookie?

Twenty-four hours later, the Hawks were smiled upon by the inconclusive video review of Hossa's goal, between the skate, the crawl across the goal line, and whether his stick glanced off the puck after contact with the skate. Once the puck completed its trek to the opposite post, it headed inside the net as Ty Conklin tried to cover it up.

By the time Toronto decided it couldn't overturn the on-ice call, the Zamboni could've supplied a completely clean sheet of ice.

Patrick Sharp assisted on that goal after forcing himself to return earlier than he probably should've. Based on his goal total and magazine-cover status, his toughness factor can be overlooked. But he doesn't wear an "A" without reason, and was probably as tired as the rest of us watching the offense limp as he limped around. After just two brief test skates Tuesday and Wednesday morning, he decided the most important game of the year was the time to bite the bullet, suit up, and then led the team with four hits in 19 12 minutes of action.

His return also allowed the rest of the lineup get closer to its comfort zone - where it hasn't been since Sharp joined Dave Bolland on the sideline. That's another thing that showed up on the stat sheet. Patrick Kane, Toews, Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook had combined for 10 goals and 28 points after Sharp was helped off the ice in Phoenix, and became the subject of increasing defensive awareness by opponents.

Hard, pressure-packed minutes became even harder as everyone else on the roster in that span had combined for four goals and 13 points. Once the Hossa ruling came, that secondary group finished the night with two goals and six points.

I wrote at the start of the season that by the time we got to this last week, the team's post-season success would depend on health and the newcomers adapting and fitting into roles the departed Cup-winners supplied. They'd started to do it in that eight-game winning streak, prior to the Bolland and Sharp injuries.

I didn't write anything about how difficult it would be to qualify. It's probably fitting that a team that's been one of the biggest thorns in the Hawks' side this season (Dallas) is the last one they're racing to the finish line.

It's a nice confidence boost heading to Detroit, where they should have a good feeling anyway. They've won in their last four trips to Joe Louis Arena, and grabbing three of a possible four points in their final back-to-back versus the Habs and Blues can only help a psyche that almost certainly was being tested.

Through 80 games, there's still work to be done. If the Blackhawks finish that job and get to defend their Stanley Cup, I'm curious to see how the group responds to being able to hit the "reset" button and fill up their tanks again mentally and, hopefully, physically.

And they'd only have to worry about one team they're playing in that round, and not the multiple teams they've been battling for the opportunity to play beyond Sunday.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Life as a backup goaltender can be difficult. 

The job entails being prepared at all times and performing at a high level when your number is called despite going sometimes weeks without seeing any action.

With Corey Crawford backing up Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Scott Darling is getting the No. 1 reps in the crease for the Blackhawks.

And he's taking full advantage of that.

"Yeah, obviously I miss Corey, but it's fun to be the guy right now," Darling said following a 2-0 loss in Wednesday's preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'll take any starts I can get. I don't care if it's regular season or preseason, I just want to play as much as I can. It was nice to get the first game under my belt."

After facing just three shots in the first period, Darling stayed on his toes by denying all 23 shots he saw in the second period — a handful of them on the penalty kill.

"I definitely don't like sitting there," Darling said of the first period. "I don't think they had a shot for about 12 minutes, but you've got to learn how to play in those situations too. It's nice to get some game feels."

Darling finished with 33 saves overall in the Blackhawks' loss and was sharp in the first dress rehearsal of the year as both goals were out of his control — a redirect on the power play and a rebound tap-in at the doorstep, both by Chris Kunitz.

Credit his strong play to working hard in the offseason and maximizing on the opportunity he's been given.

"Darling certainly was a standout, not only when we got a little bit overwhelmed in the second period, but really throughout the game," Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. "He was certainly a positive, which we always expect out of him but I think it's a testament to the way he prepared himself this summer and I think it certainly showed tonight." 

Darling doesn't get many chances to anchor the blue paint on a nightly basis.

He started in 24 games last season, 11 of which came during the final portion of the season in March and April when Crawford was dealing with an upper-body injury.

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Darling said that stretch was "probably the best I've ever felt" because you know you're the guy, which eliminates the stress factor of turning in a great performance to earn your next start.

He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 12-8-4 record, 2.58 goals against average and .915 save percentage, including one shutout.

Not bad, not great. 

This season is a chance to prove he can continue to be a consistent and reliable goaltender in any situation, and when the 27-year-old Lemont native gets the opportunity to represent the team he grew up rooting for — something he never loses sight of — Darling expects to be on top of his game when called upon.

"I'm seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still," he said. "I just want to play the best I can when they give me a chance to play."

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz figured it would be different at this level.

Yes, Schmaltz had played against some of college’s best en route to that national title with the University of North Dakota. But the pro level is the pro level for a reason.

“It’s a big transition from the college level. Guys are faster, more skilled, and you have less time and space,” he said. “But as camp’s gone on everyone’s gotten a little more comfortable and making more plays and I think we’ll continue that into tonight.”

Schmaltz looked pretty comfortable on Wednesday night, when the Blackhawks lost their preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-0. Schmaltz logged 18 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, including 2:53 on the power play. For the Madison, Wisc., kid who used to come to Blackhawks playoff games, playing that first game at the United Center was “surreal.”

“It was good,” he said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had some good opportunities. We can get more pucks on net. We let the goalie off a little easy, but hopefully just keep building and keep getting better every day.”

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Schmaltz has practiced some on the left wing, and that’s where he was in Wednesday night’s scrimmage (with Vinnie Hinostroza centering and Richard Panik on right wing). The Blackhawks always love versatility, but Schmaltz going on the wing is more of a need than an option right now.

“Most of the openings in the organization are on the wing. We’re pretty full down the middle. It’s something we’re trying to see if he can fit in there and play well there,” assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “And he’s got a nice set of hands, a nice skill set, so hopefully he’ll be comfortable on the wing there.”

Schmaltz has played more right wing than left, but he said the adjustments aren’t so bad.

“Just wall work. Might have to make some backhand plays off the wall but other than that, nothing, really,” Schmaltz said. “Since me and Panik are playing off wing, we’ll get across the blue line, cut across and make plays to each other. It’ll be fun out there.”

Schmaltz held his own in his first game in a Blackhawks uniform. There are high expectations for him entering this season, but he’ll let his game dictate where he ends up.

“If I play my game, play hard, I should put myself in a pretty good spot,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make, so I’ll compete as hard as I can every night and show them what I can do.”