Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Predators Game 4: Finished too soon

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Predators Game 4: Finished too soon

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Blackhawks’ latest playoff run is over before it really started. A hungry Nashville Predators team had their way with the Blackhawks, claiming a 4-1 victory in Game 4 and sweeping the Blackhawks out of the postseason.

As Jonathan Toews said, you can point out the Blackhawks’ problems but you also have to recognize how well Nashville played in this series – “I think it’s insulting to not give that team credit for how well they played and how well they played us specifically. I think they were relentless. Anytime we seem to start to get things going they found ways to stymie our momentum or our offense,” he said.

Still, it’s a surprise that the team that was hoisting the Stanley Cup less than two years ago is out after the first round for the second consecutive year. But that’s the way it goes. We have a few more notables to cover, so let’s get to those in our Quick Hits.

What worked: The Predators’ approach. Stick tap to the Nashville Predators: they were the better team in this series. They didn’t even toy with the notion of extending this series in Game 4, coming out with the same vigor and all-around game that got them their 3-0 lead in the first place. From Pekka Rinne on out the Predators weren’t concerned with their history against the Blackhawks. They were too busy writing a new version.

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What Didn’t Work: Anything the Blackhawks tried. Line changes, playing Patrick Kane every opportunity they could, puck possession, you name it. The Blackhawks didn’t do anything well on Thursday night in a game they absolutely had to have. Their start was so-so and a late push yielded better scoring opportunities but only one goal, and by that time they were down 3-0. The Blackhawks just didn’t have it, so they’re heading home early.

Star of the game: Roman Josi. He was giving the Blackhawks a hard enough time with his defensive game. On Thursday he also hurt them with his offense. Josi scored twice and was stellar throughout. You could throw Viktor Arvidsson in the mix, too. Arvidsson had a goal and an assist (he didn’t get a point on Josi’s first goal but he was in front of the net on it). Arvidsson’s great regular season continues in the playoffs.

He Said It: “It’s tough enough to lose a series and fall short. It’s a whole different story to lose four straight and get swept like we did. I think we’ve got guys in this room that have experienced the highs of going all the way. I think aside from what it would feel like to miss the playoffs, especially with the potential in this room, this has to be the next worst feeling for sure. So … yeah, again, not much to say right now.” Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks’ early exit.

By the Numbers:

3 – Goals for the Blackhawks in four games against the Predators.

1993 – The last time the Blackhawks were swept in a postseason series before suffering the same fate on Thursday.

23:43 – Time on ice for Patrick Kane, the most of any Blackhawks player in Game 4.

123 – Shots stopped, out of 126 shots faced, for Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne.

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.

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.