Hawks Talk Podcast: Can anybody stop the Blackhawks?

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Can anybody stop the Blackhawks?

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Steve Konroyd discuss the team's latest run to the top of the Western Conference standings, plus the loss of Artem Anisimov and the recent addition of John Hayden.

Konroyd also break downs Nick Schmaltz's struggles in the faceoff circle, the Blackhawks' pursuit of the Presidents' Trophy and the Minnesota Wild's recent losing skid.

Listen to the latest episode of the Hawks Talk Podcast below.

Thoughts and musings on a Blackhawks off day

Thoughts and musings on a Blackhawks off day

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.

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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. 

Missed opportunities cost Wild from separating themselves from Blackhawks for No. 1 seed

Missed opportunities cost Wild from separating themselves from Blackhawks for No. 1 seed

Despite playing in their third game in four days, and factoring in the 11:30 a.m. puck drop that really felt like 10:30 due to daylight savings time, the Wild turned in one of their most complete efforts of the season Sunday against the Blackhawks.

And yet they weren't rewarded for it.

Eliminate the first five minutes and it likely would have been a very different story.

Wild netminder Devan Dubnyk allowed two goals on the first two shots he faced, prompting coach Bruce Boudreau to yank the Vezina Trophy favorite in a clash between two teams fighting for the Central Division lead and home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

Boudreau made it clear after the game that his decision for the quick hook was performance-based, and not directly intended to provide a spark.

"No, it was on him," Boudreau said of Dubnyk. "You follow a goalie for 68 games, you sort of know his traits and his trends, and he didn't look like he was following the puck well."

While he may have had different thoughts about it internally, Dubnyk respected his coach's decision and handled it like a professional. 

"That's up to Bruce," Dubnyk said. "It obviously got us a spark, and we got going. Not the way we wanted to start the game. I'm fine to stay in in that situation. I always want to stay in and battle, but that's completely up to him to decide what he wants to do. If he didn't think I was ready or he wants a spark, whatever it is, he's the coach. My job is to just be ready to stay in there and battle if I need to."

It's the second straight time the Wild spotted the Blackhawks two goals at the United Center — in front of a season-high 22,147 — but unlike the last instance on Jan. 15, they weren't able to complete the rally despite vastly outplaying them.

Minnesota finished the game with 72 shot attempts (44 of them on goal) while allowing only 43 attempts (22 on goal). 

But it was Chicago that capitalized on its chances and Minnesota that didn't that made the difference.

The Wild had one power-play opportunity, and failed to record a shot on goal during it, spending more time chasing the puck after multiple cleared attempts than in the offensive zone. It might've been the easiest two-minute kill the Blackhawks have had all season.

There were many other notable examples, though.

Jason Zucker rang one off the pipe early. Charlie Coyle was robbed of a goal by Corey Crawford at the doorstep towards the latter stages of the second that kept it a 3-1 score. Shortly after, Nino Niederreiter was denied on a partial breakaway.

The Wild eventually got one to find the back of the net when Mikael Granlund struck 46 seconds into the third period that cut their deficit to 3-2. They followed that up by successfully killing off a penalty.

Just when you thought they would seize control of the game, Erik Haula was denied on a prime breakaway opportunity by Crawford, who finished with a season-high 42 saves.

"I've got to bury that," Haula said. "It should be overtime right now. At least."

Marian Hossa sealed the deal when he made it 4-2 with less than six and a half minutes to play, and the frustration was evident for the Wild knowing that not only two points were left on the table, but it was a four-point swing against a Blackhawks team that now trails by only a point for the division lead.

"We've got to find a way to capitalize and bury a few of those," said Eric Staal, who scored Minnesota' first goal. "If we did, felt like it would've been a lot more lopsided the other way."

A slow start and missed opportunities at timely moments of the game is not a recipe for success. And it stings a little more knowing how valuable points are at this time of year.

"Two of their best players get some action right away and it's 2-0," Haula said. "It's tough when you're away and you're down, chasing two goals, against this team. It's just hard. We've seen that previously in games. They're a great team, they're tough to beat."

It was the final meeting of the regular season between the two teams, but if there's a playoff date in the future, the Wild know how crucial a strong start will be.

"If we do face them again," Haula said, "that first goal is really important."