Hawk Talk: You Can Breathe, For a Week...

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Hawk Talk: You Can Breathe, For a Week...

Monday, Apr. 5, 2010
9:21 A.M.
By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

So you've been waiting to exhale, and finally allowed yourself to after Sunday's third straight win, where the Blackhawks again looked like...well...the Blackhawks. You probably view a first division title in 17 years a lot like the guys in the locker room did -- nice, but you'd really like to throw bigger parties later. Whatever kind of wakeup call Joel Quenneville and his coaching staff delivered, consider it received within the locker room, and the desired results have followed in the nick of time. Not that the guys didn't realize it, but putting it in play probably took a few more games than they wanted. Now let's see how long it lasts.

Let me know if you agree with the things I've liked the most:

First, they took the ice Sunday knowing the division was clinched by virtue of Detroit's loss in Philadelphia moments earlier. They could've celebrated, taken the foot off the accelerator, and not build upon what they did their previous two games, but they didn't against a Calgary team coming in on a three-game win streak, and desperate for points to make the playoffs. Sure, they own the Flames by sweeping the regular season series for the second straight year. But one stat I love looking at for a sense of how defensively invested and passionate a team is is blocked shots. They had 18 in the win over Phoenix a couple weeks ago, 19 last week in Minnesota, and 16 Sunday (six by Duncan Keith). Yes, there are some bad breaks (physically, and directionally) that can come out of all that diving and sprawling, but I'll take my chances when necessary. Of course, I'm not the one throwing my body in front of 100-mile-per-hour vulcanized rubber. By the way, how's this? Since the opening twelve minutes between the two teams this season, the Hawks outscored Calgary 20-3.

That leads us into the defensive tweaking the coaching staff has done with the blueline personnel. You probably weren't too happy with the trends over about 30 games that started with the first trip to Minnesota. For whatever reason - be it fatigue, boredom, predictability sniffed out by the opposition, the bag needed to be shaken up a bit. Keith and Seabrook together have been great, but like any pairing, inevitably hit their share of bumps. There was the huge vacancy in minutes left by the injuries to Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson. They're still dealing with that, but the status quo wasn't providing much hope for a turnaround. So, with the addition of Dustin Byfuglien, Coach Q's shown he's as willing to try some different things on the back end, just as he will up front. That, combined with some greater defensive awareness and better coverage all over the ice, has this team going into the long-awaited final week allowing just two goals over its previous three games. You have to go to a five-game stretch in early December - when the team allowed just four goals, and went 4-&-1 - to find similar results.

Oh, and then there's the goaltending. It's your crease, Antti. You've earned it. You've won it. And the guys are playing as well as they have for some time in front of you. Whether you're the chicken or the egg doesn't matter now. Just try to keep doing what you're doing without thinking too much about the size of the stage and the brightness of the spotlight. You have exactly as much NHL playoff experience as four of your Western Conference starting goalie brethren if the season ended a week earlier (Anderson, Howard, Rinne, and Quick). Nabokov, Bryzgalov and Luongo combined have led a team to a conference final - and no further - once. Even before their shaky post-Olympic play, sorry..I've just never been a believer of the guys in San Jose and Vancouver. The former's a game above .500 in the post-season, the latter exactly .500. Bryzgalov is 9-5, with a 1.68 goals-against and a .937 save percentage between the posts in The Post. Phoenix will need more of that in what looks like a tough first-round matchup, likely against Nashville or Detroit.

The things I've liked most in this "bounce" all have to do with defense and goaltending. We must be close to playoff time. And thankfully, all the projecting, and all the guessing, will start to bring real answers on the ice.

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya finds a new home in Eastern Conference

Johnny Oduya is headed to the Eastern Conference.

The 35-year-old defenseman signed a one-year, $1 million deal with the Ottawa Senators. The contract could be worth up to $1.25 million with incentives.

Oduya, who the Blackhawks re-acquired prior to the trade deadline last season from the Dallas Stars, finished with two goals and seven assists in 52 games between the two teams.

It comes to no one's surprise that the Blackhawks didn't re-sign the veteran defenseman.

After being swept in the first round of the playoffs last season by the Nashville Predators, Stan Bowman has made it clear the Blackhawks are headed in a different direction, and their offseason has been plenty of busy so far. Headline deals included trading Oduya's linemate Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for 24-year-old defenseman Connor Murphy and re-acquiring Brandon Saad from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Artemi Panarin.

Oduya heads to a Senators team which got ousted in the Eastern Conference Final in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Confident Blackhawks youth ready to take the next step

Ryan Hartman likes how he feels approaching this season, his sophomore stint with the Blackhawks. Scoring 19 goals, earning the trust of the coaches and gaining a good deal of responsibility in your rookie season will do that for you.

“It’s feeling like I should be there,” he said on Friday. “Maybe sometimes when you first get called up, you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’ and you’re still thinking about that. Now it’s just feeling like hockey for me and how it’s always supposed to be.”

More confidence is there for Hartman, as well as a few other young Blackhawks players who cut their teeth last year. That’s good, because those guys, having shown what they can do, will likely get more responsibility this season.

That includes Nick Schmaltz, who will either get first crack at the second-line left wing vacancy or help the Blackhawks at center, which he says is his preference “but I’m fine with wing, too.” Schmaltz struggled to start last season but following a few games in Rockford, he returned a more confident player. He played well with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik on the top line and filled in for Artem Anisimov later in the season.

“I was nervous coming in. I didn’t know if it was going to work and I gained confidence game by game and felt more comfortable,” he said. “I was making the plays I’m used to making.”

When Tanner Kero was recalled right before Christmas, it was because of Anisimov’s injury. But outside of a bye-week return to Rockford Kero turned that call-up into a full-time gig, giving the Blackhawks another bottom-six center option and earning himself a two-year contract. With Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen no longer here, Kero is expected to have that third- or fourth-line center role; thanks to experience gained last season, Kero’s more comfortable now.

“It was great,” he said. “Going in, you’re not sure. It’s day-to-day to start and you just want to prove yourself and get those opportunities, get trust and more ice time. As the season went on I got more confident, trusted my game more. Going into the season I’m going in with a lot more confidence.”

John Hayden felt fairly comfortable when he joined the Blackhawks last spring thanks to his senior season at Yale – “I needed that fourth year as a player and a person,” he said. Still, getting in some NHL games, getting a feel for the pro level and gaining familiarity with the Blackhawks will benefit him in September.

“It’s important considering it’s my first training camp and I’ll know a lot of the guys, which helps a ton. From an on-ice standpoint, I have that experience,” he said. “I’ve spent a ton of time addressing areas in need of improvement all in all I’m excited for training camp.”

But Hartman and others don’t see it as weight on their shoulders.

“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Hartman said. “When you look back you want to see improvements every year, you want to see yourself becoming a better hockey player. That’s something I want to do, I want to be able to look back and say I had a good career my first year but each year I got progressively better. That’s where my mindset is at.”

There’s more opportunity for the young players but Hayden says that’s true of everyone.

“I don’t really analyze opportunity. Regardless of the team, it’s going to be competitive,” he said. “Every summer you have to have a hard-working mindset and do what you can to show up in the fall in the best shape of your life.”

The Blackhawks’ young players have all set the bar at a certain level and will be expected to improve. It takes confidence to take that next step. Thanks to experience gained last season, they’re feeling good about taking it.