Western Conference finals rematch? Not exactly

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Western Conference finals rematch? Not exactly

Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010
7:31 PM

By Tracey Myers
CSNChicago.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks were the cream of the Western crop when they met in the conference finals last May. And despite the Blackhawks sweep in their playoff tilt, Patrick Sharp called it the toughest series of their postseason.

Flash forward six months to the present, and neither team is really where it wants to be. Be it personnel changes, slow starts or busy schedules, the Blackhawks and Sharks have struggled through inconsistent beginnings. So while there may be memories of past playoff series, both teams are more focused on working out present kinks.

I think were all going to look back and say, this is the rematch. I tend to live more in the present, San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. I see our team as a team that has some work to do. Were not the same team that played against the Blackhawks in May.

The Blackhawks arent the same, either. Adjusting to new players, lines, defensive pairings, early injuries, etc., has led to some ups and downs. It didnt help that the Blackhawks played so many games, either.

Its just been a brutal few weeks, playing every second day and a lot of new guys on the team, Dave Bolland said of the shakiness. It could have been just about finding chemistry.

The Blackhawks are looking at Saturdays victory vs. Vancouver as the benchmark of where they want to be. Theyre hoping a rare few days off with a Las Vegas trip in between will help jump-start that chemistry on and off the ice. Coach Joel Quenneville was encouraged by his teams practice on Tuesday, when the team looked rejuvenated and ready to go.

It was a fun couple of days to get away, get back to remembering how we went into that trip. The way we played in Vancouver is something we want to get right back and thats got to be our mindset, got to be our standard.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have lost three in a row entering Wednesdays game. They had two-goal road leads against Colorado and Dallas, only to squander both late in regulation and eventually lose in overtime. None of the Sharks were happy with their Saturday response at home, a 3-0 loss to Columbus.

They went through a determined practice on Monday and want to get back to taking advantage of their home ice, where theyre now 6-3-2 this season. Just winning, regardless of the opponent, is the Sharks focus right now.

We know were better than weve been, Joe Pavelski said. We havent executed quite as well as we should. It just hasnt happened for us quite yet but we need to find it quick here. Regardless of who were playing, whether Chicagos in town or whoever, its important for us.

That goes for the Blackhawks, too. For these two teams, times change and rosters change. But the need for victories and consistency never does.

This should be a good game and looking forward to it. We cant take any game for granted, Sharp said. We want to win every game. Thats what our focus is.

Niemi or not?

Will Antti Niemi start against his former team? San Jose coach Todd McLellan said hes letting his Wednesday night starting goaltender know he is the guy, but he wasnt telling the media on Tuesday afternoon. Asked if he took into consideration Niemis past with the Blackhawks, he said, absolutely. Otherwise, he wasnt tipping his hand.

Its a consideration we take into every start, he said. We feel that if hes the guy, we feel good about him playing against them. And if hes not the guy, hell eventually get his chance against them.

Good trip

The Blackhawks said they enjoyed their down time in the middle of this circus trip. But Patrick Kane said hes also ready to get back to hockey.

One thing is you can get away from the game and once its over youre ready to come back, he said. If anything it helped the team bond together even more. Hopefully we come together even closer.

Bolland agreed.

Its been a pretty busy two months, so it was good to get away from the rink and hockey, think about other things, he said. Now were back and ready to go.
Briefly

As of Tuesday, Duncan Keith is currently second in All-Star ballot voting (82,968), behind Sidney Crosby (118,755). Jonathan Toews is fifth with 79,953 votes.

Marty Turco will start Wednesday vs. San Jose. Turco is 24-14-1 lifetime vs. the Sharks.

Tracey Myers is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow Tracey on Twitter @TramyersCSN for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

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.”