Hawks leaning on each other during slump

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Hawks leaning on each other during slump

NEW YORK Jonathan Toews gave a few smiles on Wednesday, an expression thats been hard to display considering the Blackhawks past few weeks of games.

Trouble sleeping, conversations on hockey and nothing but hockey, Toews and the Blackhawks are experiencing a lot of that right now. Nobody understands the life of a struggling athlete more than another struggling athlete. So with the pressure to win leaning on them heavy, the Blackhawks are leaning on each other.

The Blackhawks will look to snap their nine-game winless streak on Thursday, when they take on the surging New York Rangers. Its been a long haul on an already long road trip for the Blackhawks, who are dazed at whats happened the last three weeks. But theyve tried to take advantage of their time around each other, talking it out and trying to keep each others spirits high.

Every day were reminding each other that were teammates, friends and family. Well pull through it together, Toews said. Were not holding any of the bad luck or discouraging things against each other. Thats the biggest thing.

Dave Bolland said hes never been through a skid like this, dating all the way back to his junior hockey days. Keeping spirits high has been difficult, at best. But he said the team dichotomy has to pull the Blackhawks out of this off the ice as well as on it.

We go down as one and we win as one, he said. When one guys down, you boost him up. Were always helping teammates. Thats the one thing with this team: were a family. If anybodys down and anything happens, theres another guy to bump him up or say something.

And for those who think the Blackhawks are just turning off the hockey thoughts as soon as they leave the rink, guess again. Toews talked about having some sleepless nights lately. Patrick Sharp said the conversation is all hockey all the time, from on the ice to at the dinner table its not like you punch out of the rink and clear mentally, Sharp said. We take our job seriously.

The Blackhawks say theyre pulling together during this slump. They have to. Other teams are still gunning for them and nobodys feeling sorry for them.

They were a tight group when they were winning. They have to be just as tight, if not tighter, to start winning again.

It does get to be tough when youre losing to come to the rink. Nobody likes talking about it; everybody likes to stay away from it. But we do talk about it, Bolland said. Its never fun being in one of these and its tough. For us, talking and anything we can do to get out of it is positive.

Connor McDavid believes Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat will succeed in NHL: 'He's a special player'

Connor McDavid believes Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat will succeed in NHL: 'He's a special player'

Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat is putting up video-game numbers in the Ontario Hockey League.

He ranks first among all players with 49 goals and 104 points, and has done so in only 50 games. That's an average of more than two points per game.

DeBrincat, the Blackhawks' second-round draft pick (No. 39 overall) in 2015 thanks to the Andrew Shaw trade, became the Erie Otters' all-time leading goal scorer earlier this year and on Saturday, he tied Brad Boyes for second on the team's all-time points list with 309. The only player he's chasing now is teammate Dylan Strome, who has 329 and counting.

Connor McDavid, who ranks fourth in Otters history with 285 points, was there for DeBrincat's rookie season when he scored 51 goals and 50 assists. The 20-year-old Oilers captain very much still pays attention to the Otters, and isn't surprised by the heightened success of his former teammate.

"He’s having another amazing season," McDavid said. "No surprise there."

It was easy to suggest DeBrincat's numbers were inflated because he benefited from having a player like McDavid centering his line. But McDavid insists that wasn't the case.

"Honestly, we helped each other," McDavid said. "It was not a one-way street by any means. He finds a way to score goals. My year they were saying, 'Oh, he was just playing with me.' Then the other year, he’s playing with (Strome). He’s playing with Stromer again. To score 50 three seasons in a row is absolutely incredible no matter who you’re playing with or what you’re doing. Absolute credit to him."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The numbers back it up, too.

DeBrincat's points per game average has increased in each of the last three seasons: 1.53, 1.68 and 2.08, a significant jump from his second to third season. It's especially impressive when you factor in that he's scored only eight of his 49 goals on the power play this year after combining for 34 goals on the man advantage in his first two. 

Initially, McDavid was a little skeptical when informed that newly-signed winger DeBrincat, who's now listed as 5-7, 170 pounds, would be his new linemate. It didn't take long for that to change.

"He kind of just came out of nowhere," McDavid said. "I remember us signing (him) and looking, and it said he was 5-2, 140 pounds, whatever. The GM at the time, Sherry Bassin, said 'I found you a new winger.' I’m like, ‘That guy is going to play with me?’ Sure enough, he comes in and we kind of have that chemistry right away.

"He knows where the net is. He finds a way to score basically every night. He’s got a great shot. He’s one of the feistiest guys I’ve ever played with. It’s really remarkable about what he’s been able to do."

Size is surely to be the biggest concern for DeBrincat at the NHL level, but players such as Cam Atkinson (5-7), Johnny Gaudreau (5-8) and Mats Zuccarello (5-7) are proving that you can be among the league's best despite being undersized. And the game is evolving into more of an up-tempo style where teams built on speed is becoming the new norm.

DeBrincat's willingness to stick his nose into dirty areas combined with his offensively-gifted ability is a big reason why McDavid believes his former linemate will succeed at the highest level.

"I think well," McDavid said when asked how DeBrincat's game will translate into the NHL. "He’s just got such a drive and such a nose for the net that I don’t think he’s going to be stopped. He takes on guys much bigger. I don’t really know how he does it.

"Especially when he was a rookie and I was playing with him, he’s going into scrums against guys that are 6-5, and you’re on the ice thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to help you?’ He definitely picks his fights. He’s a special person and special player."

Ryan Hartman defends teammate, but fight proves to be turning point in Blackhawks loss to Oilers

Ryan Hartman defends teammate, but fight proves to be turning point in Blackhawks loss to Oilers

The NHL implemented the bye week for the first time this season in an effort to give teams a five-day break before the stretch run of the regular season.

Entering Saturday's game, teams were 3-10-3 coming out of those games with many of those losses coming in convincing fashion.

Despite a 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, the Blackhawks weren't one of those teams. They appeared to be reenergized more than rusty, and it showed in the opening 20 minutes of the game when they fired off 30 shot attempts (12 on goal) compared to the Oilers' 10 (four on goal).

But early in the second period, momentum shifted after Ryan Hartman came to the defense of teammate Tanner Kero, who was leveled by Oilers defenseman Eric Gryba in the neutral zone.

Hartman skated over to Gryba and dropped the gloves near the goal line, afterwards getting tagged with a two-minute penalty for instigating, five minutes for fighting and another 10 for a misconduct.

"It's kind of a no-brainer for me," Hartman said of sticking up for Kero. "I tried waiting long enough so it wasn't an instigator but it's kind of a judgment call I guess, some refs call it different ways. Unfortunately it ended up in a power play for them, but it's something you've got to do."

Hartman said he and the official had a discussion about the instigator penalty for clarity, which was handed to him due to the distance traveled after the hit.

Hartman said after the game that he respects the decision, but teammates and coaches didn't necessarily agree with the call.

"Thought they both had an agreement," Jonathan Toews said of the fight. "It looked like they were both going to go at it. Don’t think Hartsy jumped him by any means. But I guess just because there’s a previous hit immediately before that, then he got the instigator there."

Said Joel Quenneville: "I don't necessarily know that he was going to start the fight. I think he went over there to talk to the guy, so you lose Hartsy there."

And it proved to be the turning point.

Less than two minutes later, the Oilers capitalized on the power play after Matt Benning's shot ricocheted off Blackhawks defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk's skate and into the net, putting Edmonton out in front first.

They wouldn't look back, hanging on to beat the Blackhawks 3-1, and getting revenge on a team that beat them last week 5-1 in their first game out of the bye.

While it may not have been an opportune time to do it, the Blackhawks appreciate Hartman's game and know more times than not, his energy will result in a positive outcome.

"We haven’t seen a lot of fights this year so, no matter what, it always gets us going, especially in our own building," Toews said. "I think the fans love that sort of thing, too, and Hartsy’s been going after guys who are a lot bigger than him this year. We love that fearless play and definitely helps our guys feed off it."

"Hartsy's a competitive guy," Quenneville said. "We like him to have that a little bit of abrasiveness and unpredictably so there's nothing wrong with that. We like the way he competes and what he brings us."