The Blackhawks continue on their road trip but we are watching from afar. Up close or from here, it doesn't matter: The Blackhawks continue to surge at the right time and, going back to the start of February, have now won 14 of their last 17 games. Entering Saturday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Blackhawks sit atop the Western Conference with a three-point lead over the Minnesota Wild.
Since we're not traveling, we're thinking. And musing. So here are some thoughts and muses regarding the Blackhawks' last few games.
The Blackhawks and Scott Darling said the backup goaltender was fine, despite coming back in 10 days off a hand injury that originally had a three-week timeline. Apparently so. Darling was stellar on Thursday night, stopping 33 of 34 shots in the Blackhawks' 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators.
Missing a few games, Darling had no rust. Good thing, because the Senators gave him a steady dose of shots, including some great looks in the third period. So with 12 games remaining before the playoffs, it looks like the Blackhawks are ending the regular season the way they started it: winning with top-notch goaltending.
And the Blackhawks' goaltenders have once again been busy. In his last two starts against Minnesota and Montreal, Corey Crawford saw 44 and 42 shots, respectively. Darling saw 34 on Thursday. Are the Blackhawks relying too much on goaltending again? Well, given those shot totals against the Wild and Montreal Canadiens, you could argue that.
It helps that, offensively, the Blackhawks have done a lot with a little. They took a 2-0 lead over Minnesota on their first two shots and a 2-0 lead midway through their game in Montreal. The Blackhawks finished with 22 shots against Minnesota, 24 against the Canadiens. They had a few more shots and took a bit longer to break through vs. Ottawa (credit Senators goaltender Mike Condon for that). But even with leads, Darling and Crawford have been pulling their share of weight lately.
Nick Schmaltz didn't have to get the reminder to shoot more — he knows that already. Still, be it the Blackhawks' prompting or his own, Schmaltz responded on Thursday with three shots against the Ottawa Senators.
Now can he stay consistent with it? Shot totals have been feast or famine for Schmaltz lately. He had three against Ottawa, Detroit and Pittsburgh, zero vs. Montreal and Minnesota. The Blackhawks like Schmaltz's shot and encourage him to take it more often, but confidence in taking that shot is like everything else with a young player: it takes time. Schmaltz regained confidence in his overall game, and it shows. He had confidence to play second-line center in Artem Anisimov's injury absence because that's the position he's played most of his career. The confidence to take that shot more consistently will come, too.
Richard Panik falls under the “he should shoot more” category, too, but maybe it's time to just let him be on that subject. Through 70 games Panik has 132 shots, an average of less than two per game. He also has 18 goals. Panik's strength, much like Anisimov's, has been being at or near the net. Both have had most of their production there, either planting and waiting for a pass or cleaning up on rebounds. (By the way, to further illustrate our point, Anisimov has 22 goals on just 105 shots this season.) I understand the shoot-more demand for some players but for others, it's more about being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to do when they're there. Panik has been great with that all season.
This last thought is courtesy of a two-part tweet from Pierre LeBrun on Thursday night, in which he credits the Blackhawks for once again going through turnover yet thriving in the wake of it. Among the responses was this: why no Jack Adams talk for coach Joel Quenneville?
When that topic arises, Quenneville gets the Crawford-esque argument: “of course he's good. Look at the team he's got.” It's easy to look at the Blackhawks' core, the one that's been in place for several seasons and three Stanley Cups, and put all the credit on them. They deserve a lot of it. But it's also about knowing who to put with who, and Quenneville, (sometimes maddening) line changes and all, usually gets it right. He knew how to use his rookies, who to trust and who to give more responsibility to when they showed they could handle it. So much for that fallacy of him disliking/distrusting young players, eh?
Other coaches are probably going to get more Jack Adams notice this season, especially if their teams are finding new success (please see John Tortorella in Columbus). But there's something to be said for sustaining success through changes, and Quenneville has done that.