Blackhawks want to finish strong while staying fresh for postseason

Blackhawks want to finish strong while staying fresh for postseason

Every team has goals it wants to hit at various parts of the season. At the start you want to be strong so you can save yourself a mad scramble to get into the postseason. In the middle, you want to just keep pace, get through that drudgery known as games 40-60.

But what about the end? If you're a playoff-bound team it's about reaching balance: you want to play your best hockey but also want to get your rest and conserve energy for the "next season."

The Blackhawks are in this mode right now. The postseason berth has been wrapped up. They've hit the 100-point mark and still maintain a six-point lead in the conference/division. So with nine games left the Blackhawks will try to get that overall play they had through most of February while being mindful of rest.

"We have [nine] to go and want to make sure we're fresh. At the same time, we want to be competitive," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're looking to play games and in games, if we have a chance to back off a little bit, that'll be dictated by the score, the time of the game."

Entering their last two games trailing by two, the Blackhawks haven't had the chance to back off. They've had to do the opposite. Quenneville has said the team's four-line rotation, which was great in February, hasn't been there the past few games. Part of that could be due to injury. Artem Anisimov has missed the last three-plus games with a left-leg injury and is still expected to miss another 2-3 weeks. The Blackhawks have found ways to win despite that, but want to get back to more consistent hockey.

"Obviously we still want to try to win our division you want to be playing well," Brian Campbell said. "The last [few] games have been OK, spurts and stuff, so we want to ramp it up. There are some guys who can probably back off if they need or want to, there are those situations. It's a good situation to have. But this team's been around, they know how to prepare and get ready for it."

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So does Quenneville. We've reached that time of the season when the Blackhawks won't practice much, if at all. They're playing every other day and their morning skates are their versions of practice. As for in games, the Blackhawks know how to keep their energy up there, too.

"I think just playing good hockey and taking short shifts is key. You're not extending shifts to a minute and a half, two minutes," Ryan Hartman said. "You're conserving some long-term energy."

The Blackhawks are nearing the regular-season finish line but another race awaits them. They want to be ready for the postseason but they don't want to get too relaxed down the stretch.

"It's still the regular season. Nobody's taking the foot off the gas pedal. We're still trying to win hockey games and you want to come into the playoffs with a winning atmosphere and winning attitude," Hartman said. "Take every game one at a time and don't try to play conservative. Play good and winning hockey."

Tanner Kero’s consistency leads to longer stay with Blackhawks

Tanner Kero’s consistency leads to longer stay with Blackhawks

When you're an in-season call-up you know your stay is always up in the air. Maybe you were called up because someone else is hurt and once that player returns to the lineup, you'll probably return to the minors. Or you were called up to give the team a boost, offensively or defensively, and if you don't do it you'll be reassigned.

Tanner Kero is familiar with the scenarios and the uncertainties. When he was recalled for an injured Artem Anisimov just before Christmas, Kero approached it the same way he did when he joined the Blackhawks last season. That was a brief stay. This has become a long-term one.

Kero played in his 37th game on Sunday, his bank-shot pass to Marcus Kruger leading to the latter's empty-net goal in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. Kero has helped fill the bottom-six need at center, has been solid in faceoffs (he's just under 46 percent for the season) and has been part of the team's dependable youth movement this season. Kero said he's appreciated the long-term opportunity but he approaches every game as another audition.

"You're never too sure how long a call-up is going to be, for whatever the reason you're being called up is, but you want to take advantage of that opportunity and work hard every day and try to earn that spot," Kero said. "If you get that consistent ice time you just try to get better, not just be satisfied with that. You try to earn as much as you can, earn their trust and more opportunities."

Coach Joel Quenneville credits Kero with bringing a consistent game.

"He's reliable in a lot of ways," he said. "He puts himself in the right spot, down low in his own end, underneath coverage, and seems to be useful in killing penalties as well. There's more offense in his game that hopefully can come around and add to his reliability defensively. We feel he's done a good job of being a guy in the middle you can use and we like what he's brought to our team in a position where, [earlier in] the year, I don't know if he was forecast to be a regular like that. But he's become more and more reliable, or used more."

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Kero doesn't take anything for granted, even though he's had a stead role this late in the regular season. That pressure is part of what fuels him. 

"That pushes you a little extra every day," he said. "You want to make sure you're doing all the little things right. You never know when the opportunity will be taken away for whatever reason. You want to take advantage of it and make the most of it."

Kero's learned a lot in his time with the Blackhawks. He's more confident in his role, more confident with the puck and knowing when to demand it, hold it or give it up. He's also getting great experience in dealing with the more intense regular-season stretch run, something he'll need if he's part of the postseason (and as of now it looks like he will be). 

"You want to play against those good teams, to play on the road and in different atmospheres and get used to it, get the confidence to play your game in those environments," Kero said. "Heading into the playoffs that's a huge thing, especially playing against teams like Minnesota who are right in the race with you. You want to trust yourself and trust you can play in that situation."

Kero has earned trust this season. What looked like a short-term stay when he first arrived has become a lengthy one. But he'll keep playing like he has to prove himself every game.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Maple Leafs tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Maple Leafs tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight on CSN and streaming live on Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Auston Matthews and Jonathan Toews.

Even before he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2016, Matthews drew early comparisons to Toews, and it's easy to see the connection. They're both terrific two-way centermen, are difficult to knock off the puck, are just as effective in the defensive zone that they are in the offensize zone, own a lethal shot, and are leaders both on and off the ice.

Matthews is having a sensational rookie campaign, with 31 goals and 24 assists for 55 points in 69 games. He's neck-and-neck with Patrik Laine in the Calder Trophy race as the league's top rookie, and is even challenging for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as leading goal scorer. 

2. Patrick Kane and Mitch Marner.

Like Matthews and Toews, there are many similarities between Kane and Marner. They're both undersized offensive wingers, possess great hands, are smooth skaters, and are dangerous on the power play. Kane joined Sportsnet's Hockey Central earlier in the year and acknowledged those comparisons, and even admitted that Marner is more of a two-way player than Kane was when he was 19 years old.

Marner, the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, is tied with Matthews for first on the team with 55 points in 64 games this season, and is on pace to finish with more points than Kane did (72) during his rookie campaign. Marner is averaging .86 points per game while Kane's average was .88.

3. Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville.

When two of the best coaches in NHL history go up against each other, it's always fun to watch the chess match that occurs during the game. With the Blackhawks being the road team, Babcock will have the luxury of last line change. Both rosters are loaded with talent, so it will be interesting to see how Babcock plays his cards against Quenneville.

Babcock and Quenneville have combined for 1,434 regular-season wins, 200 playoff wins and four Stanley Cups. They also helped Team Canada capture gold at the World Cup last fall.

4. James and Trevor van Riemsdyk.

Because they're in different conferences, the van Riemsdyk brothers only see each other twice a year. But Trevor wasn't able to play in the first meeting all the way back on Oct. 22 due to an upper-body injury, and James missed both contests in 2015-16 with a fractured foot. So this will be their first game against each other since Nov. 1, 2014, which was the first time they faced off in the NHL.

In that game, Trevor was on the ice against his older brother for 8:03 of his 19:21 minutes, the highest amount of time he spent on the ice against one Maple Leafs player. James scored a goal in that game, and he also lit the lamp in the first meeting this season.

5. Beware Toronto's power play.

As mentioned above, the Maple Leafs have a handful of young, skilled forwards that can make you pay on the man advantage. They're No. 1 in the league in that department with a 23.7 percent success rate. And they're in a nice groove right now, too, having scored at least a power play goal in five of their past six games, going 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) during that stretch.

The Blackhawks have been great on the penalty kill in eight games this month, allowing only one goal in their last 16 tries (93.8 percent). As Pat Foley would say, something's gotta give!

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