Hawks, Pens to battle with differing views of playoffs

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Hawks, Pens to battle with differing views of playoffs

Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011
10:17 a.m.
Associated Press

The winners of the last two Stanley Cups square off for the only time this season Sunday at the United Center.

Neither the Chicago Blackhawks nor the Pittsburgh Penguins, however, resemble their Cup-winning teams or are playing at a championship level.

The defending champion Blackhawks (29-23-6) might again be without coach Joel Quenneville as he continues to recover from gastrointestinal bleeding brought on by a small ulcer. The 52-year-old has been released from the hospital, but it is unclear when he will return to the bench.

The health of its coach isn't Chicago's only concern.

The Blackhawks are 11th in Western Conference, four points out of a playoff spot. They lost to Columbus 4-3 on Friday after earning six of eight points in their previous four games (2-0-2).

"We've got to bear down," said assistant coach Mike Haviland, who has led the team in Quenneville's absence the last two games.

While a playoff berth for Chicago diminishes with each loss, Pittsburgh looks like it will be making a fifth straight playoff appearance despite its troubles.

The Penguins (36-19-4) haven't played since beating Colorado 3-2 in overtime Wednesday, avoiding a fifth loss in six games. They are in fourth place in the East, five points behind conference-leading Philadelphia and 12 up on eighth-place Carolina, but the team has been decimated by injuries.

Superstar center Sidney Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a concussion and Evgeni Malkin, the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, is done for the season after having surgery on his torn ACL and MCL. Forwards Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu and Eric Tangradi are also sidelined.

Amidst all these injuries, Pittsburgh will welcome the return of Matt Cooke to the lineup in Chicago after the left wing completed a four-game suspension Wednesday for a hard hit on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin.

With their top three goal-scorers out (Crosby, Kunitz and Malkin), Tyler Kennedy again stepped up for the banged-up Penguins on Wednesday, scoring a power-play goal 4:10 into overtime. Kennedy has five goals in the last eight games after scoring only two in his previous 24.

"Staying focused on how we need to play," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Making sure we're playing the right way to give us a chance to have success. We've had a fair amount of success doing it. That's really been the mindset and struggle of our team - to stay in that mindset."

While Pittsburgh's roster looks different from its 2009 Stanley Cup champion team because of injuries, the Blackhawks had to part ways with several key members of last season's team because of the salary cap.

They kept their core intact, but have been receiving little production from their role players.

Against the Blue Jackets, Patrick Sharp had two goals and assisted on a score by Patrick Kane as Chicago's top line - along with Jonathan Toews - accounted for all of its offense. Kane and Toews both had two assists, and the trio has combined for 20 of the team's 38 points in the last five games.

"Those guys are game breakers," Pittsburgh right wing Craig Adams said. "We are going to pay special attention to them if we can."

This will be the first meeting between these teams since Chicago's 2-1 overtime win in Pittsburgh on Dec. 5, 2009.

"We're going keep plugging along here," Sharp said. "We're going to get on a hot streak, win some games and get ourselves right back in it."

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For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

Ulf Samuelsson saw the changes the Blackhawks made this season, his hiring as assistant coach being one of them. Soon he’ll be working with the team’s defensemen, another area that’s had some upheaval.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, some uncertainties and some moving parts that I probably, typically haven’t seen going into a season. So that makes it even more interesting and challenging,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m looking forward to this opportunity to really develop and work with some of the younger players.”

From its immediate coach to its personnel, the Blackhawks’ defense is dealing with plenty of change that will continue when the season begins this fall. The Blackhawks have had some addition (Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle) but dealing with the subtraction (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) will nevertheless be tough. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Friday that pairings are a work in progress.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we're going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

For Murphy, who was acquired in the deal that sent Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, there are no set expectations as to where he fits yet.

“With any team you go into training camp proving where you’re going to be. Everyone has to come in and earn certain positions, especially me being a guy who they’re not as familiar with; I have to show what I can do,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to bring a more physical edge to defending at times and be able to skate well, have a good reach, make smart reads and try to help out with whatever’s needed with that.”

As for young players, the opportunity is there. Gustav Forsling admits he wasn’t happy that fellow Swede and role model Hjalmarsson was traded. But Forsling, who looked strong coming out of camp last September, knows he has to take advantage of the situation.

“Of course, I want to take the next step and play more,” he said. “I want to keep progressing my game and keep developing.”

The same goes for Jordan Oesterle, who the Blackhawks signed to a two-year deal on July 1.

“When I wanted to come here the opportunity was tremendous. Just the chance to come in and try to make the top six is there, it’s a battle with a number of us guys but that’s all you ask for in the situation I’m in,” he said. “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more. I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Again, the Blackhawks could re-address defense once they implement Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve after the season begins. General manager Stan Bowman said there’s “no exact plan” right now on how they use that space – “that’s probably going to be dictated by where we’re at when we get to October, how the team’s playing, what areas are strong, what areas we want to add to,” he said.

It remains to be seen on that front. Regardless, from coaching to personnel, much has changed with the Blackhawks defense. 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Blackhawks Convention Opening Ceremonies

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AP

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Blackhawks Convention Opening Ceremonies

On the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast, we're live at the 2017 Blackhawks Convention. 

Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp join David Kaplan and Pat Boyle to talk about returning to Chicago. 

Later Boyle, CSN Blackhawks Insider Tracey Myers, Chris Kuc and Sam Panayotovich discuss the huge roster changes this offseason. 

Listen to the STL Pod below.