Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks aim to stay hot vs. Canucks tonight on CSN Plus

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks aim to stay hot vs. Canucks tonight on CSN Plus

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Vancouver Canucks tonight on CSN Plus and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

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Five Things to Watch:

1. Jonathan Toews heating up again.

The Blackhawks captain went through a difficult stretch offensively towards the middle part of the season, and broke through when he had one goal and three assists in a 4-2 win over Vancouver on Jan. 22. Since then, only Brad Marchand (35) and Patrick Kane (32) have had more points than Toews (31). He extended his point streak to four games with a two-goal effort in Sunday's 6-3 victory over Colorado, and will look to keep it going tonight.

2. Canucks banged up.

The Canucks have lost six straight games, and it's not helping that players are dropping like flies as the season winds down. Loui Eriksson remains out with a leg injury. Erik Gudbranson (wrist) has been out since December. Brendan Gaunce (upper-body injury) and Jacob Markstrom (food poisoning) didn't travel to Chicago. Nikolay Goldobin is battling an illness. And Markus Granlund, who ranks second on the team with 19 goals, has been shut down for the season to undergo wrist surgery. They're a vulnerable group right now.

3. Take advantage on special teams.

Special teams hasn't been a kind area for the Canucks this season. Their power play is the third-worst unit in the league at 13.8 percent, and their penalty kill unit ranks 26th with a 77.6 percent success rate. The good news for the Canucks is that they're one of the least-penalized teams, but when they do go down a man, it's often trouble. They're 3-for-6 on the PK in their last three games, having allowed one in each of them.

4. Nick Schmaltz showing improvement at the dot?

Since moving to center for the injured Artem Anisimov, Schmaltz is 10-for-50 at the faceoff circle, which comes out to be a 20 percent success rate. His season percentage has slipped to 28.9, by far the lowest total among players who have taken at least 200 attempts. He showed some improvement in that department Sunday against Colorado when he went 5-for-15 (33.3 percent) after going 5-for-35 (14.3 percent) in the previous three games. Progress.

5. Richard Panik approaching 20 goals.

With a goal on Sunday, Panik increased his career-high goal total to 19; his previous season-high was 11, set in 2014-15. One more goal puts him at 20, which would make him the sixth Blackhawks player this season to reach the 20-goal mark. Ryan Hartman isn't far away, either, from potentially making it a seventh. They had only four 20-goal scorers last season. 

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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. 

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' win over Senators

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' win over Senators

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night:

1. Scott Darling shows no signs of rust.

In his first start since March 1 due to a hand injury that sidelined him for almost two weeks, Darling returned between the pipes and picked up right where he left off. He turned aside 33 of 34 shots to earn his 17th win of the season, increasing his league-leading save percentage to .933. He also improved to 5-0-0 in his last five starts, and has a .963 save percentage during that span.

Joel Quenneville told reporters after the game that Corey Crawford was "under the weather" or else he likely would have started.

2. John Hayden keeps it simple in NHL debut.

The 22-year-old forward logged 16 shifts for 8:44 of ice time and finished with a team-high three hits, the first of which came just five seconds into his first career NHL shift. A couple of defensive-zone draws cut into his ice time a bit, with the Blackhawks usually adding a second center in case of a faceoff violation, so some of his shifts were short.

Overall, Hayden kept it simple, and Quenneville was complimentary of him after the game, citing his physicality as an area that can be important to a team that doesn't have much of it.

3. Nick Schmaltz fills in nicely for Artem Anisimov.

As expected, Schmaltz was solid again at second-line center in between Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Despite not getting on the scoresheet, he played a key role in the Blackhawks' first goal of the game after battling for position in front of the net, stepping up in that aspect of the game with Anisimov out. Duncan Keith was credited with the goal, his sixth of the year.

Schmaltz was all over the ice, and you could see his confidence level getting higher every time he touches the puck.

The only flaw in his game is at the faceoff dot as he's won only four of 23 draws in his last two games, and fewer than 30 percent out of 205 tries this season.

4. Blackhawks penalty kill comes up big in second period.

Three of the Blackhawks' best penalty killers — Jonathan Toews, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa — committed minor penalties in the second period, with Hossa's coming immediately after Kruger's.

But the penalty kill unit came up large by killing them all off without any harm. They allowed only five shots on goal across those six minutes, which helped keep it a 0-0 contest heading into the third period.

5. Richard Panik snaps mini goal drought at crucial moment.

After scoring six goals in his previous nine games, Panik snapped a six-game goal drought by burying a power-play goal from Patrick Kane with 3:01 left in regulation to break a 1-1 tie. It turned out to be the game winner, his second this month and fourth this season.

Panik's goal gave him 18 on the year, tying him with Jonathan Toews for fifth on the team.