Blackhawks Strong-Arm Central – Anatomy of a Late Season Run
The Blackhawks got absolutely shellacked in Sunrise this weekend.
Their 7-0 loss to the Panthers Saturday night was their worst since a 9-2 beating at the hands of Edmonton in November of 2011, and ended a week also featuring uninspired efforts against lowly Colorado and Vancouver that went against their two-month norm of ungodly good play.
Patrick Kane even found himself in a sensational almost-fight:
We’ll consider this, and the drubbing, an anomaly. A pre-playoffs wake-up call. They had to come back to Earth at some point, and Chicago fans hope it’s just another brief landing. They responded quite well to their last prolonged downturn.
After losing in San Jose on January 31 Chicago was 30-17-5. Not bad at all, but with their pointless streak at three games and looking up in the standings at Minnesota’s 33-11-5 record, things could have been better. In the midst of 22-3-1 run featuring a twelve-game win streak, and having blown out the Oilers 5-2 at Rogers Place that evening the Wild seemed invincible. Devan Dubnyk was on fire. Eric Staal’s comeback was in full force, and their six-point margin over the Blackhawks in the Central appeared likely to widen soon.
The Wild went on to enjoy a very good February at 8-3-1, but the Blackhawks bested them with a 9-1-0 month and handed Minnesota two of their three losses.
Then came March.
While the Wild’s deadline acquisitions of Martin Hanzal and Ryan White were supposed to fortify the squad for further supremacy in the West, this month has not been kind to Minnesota. Their 3-10-1 record and four-game losing string accompanied a 9-2-1 Chicago run prior to them losing by a touchdown in Florida. And that’s with Artem Anisimov’s injury rendering him out for at least the rest of the regular season as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson’s stint on IR.
Several less-than-obvious names have fueled their rise. One to look at, particularly while Anisimov is out, is Nick Schmaltz (four assists in the three games before Florida – “BF” for short). He’s a key piece on their second power play unit along with another under-heralded component Ryan Hartman, who netted two goals against the Canucks to extend the game into OT. He’s also currently centering their second line flanked by Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane. There are worse places to be. Although to help keep the arrangement going Hartman, as Chicago’s top penalty minute collector, might make sure he gets between Kane and potential sparring partners. A Max Domi-like broken hand would really wreck the playoff party.
Richard Panik, who lost some steam after his blazing start to the season, is back with solid production (20 goals, 20 assists with 142 hits this campaign, three goals and one assist in his last five BF contests) on the power play and top line along with Jonathan Toews and recent Yale signee John Hayden, quite a story as they push toward the West’s top playoff spot and possible Presidents’ Trophy. At 6-3, 223 the 22 year-old center offers impressive size and a physical, skilled game that could land him a prominent spot in Chicago’s future as well as present. A political science major, the former Bulldog captain balances his job in Chicago with Spring semester courses at Yale as graduation approaches, so he’s busy.
Here’s a small sample of what he can do:
Niklas Hjalmarsson continues as a sturdy component of Chicago’s recent fortunes blocking 168 shots, good for sixth among NHL defensemen, and exceeding his prior blocks-per-game career average by three-tenths of a block. Paired with offense-oriented Duncan Keith, his nearly 21:28 minutes of ice time places him third on the Chicago blue line and his +10 rating is a plus. Though not much of a scorer, a career-best 8.5% shot rate this campaign has led to some production with five goals and twelve assists through 69 games.
In addition to putting up good peripheral numbers, Trevor van Riemsdyk is scoring lately on the third defensive pairing with Brian Campbell, totaling three assists in his last three BF games, and a career-best 15 points in 51 games. While his blocks are down slightly in this injury-abbreviated campaign (1.66 per-game vs. 1.82 in 2015-16) his pre-Saturday plus/minus was up to plus-20, a huge improvement over last year’s minus-5 rating.
Soon-to-be free agent goalie Scott Darling doesn’t play all that often, but when he has it’s been pretty spectacular, BF of course (18-5-3, 2.13 GAA, .930 SV%). He served a long stretch subbing for Corey Crawford after his December emergency appendectomy and in that, as well as spot duty, his work has been stellar. Angling for a number one goalie spot with Vegas or elsewhere next year he could be a great fantasy pick up before potentially becoming the next Cam Talbot.
A reminder of what he’s capable of:
Marcus Kruger is an invaluable defensive forward who is probably not that valuable to fantasy squads, but has paid huge dividends for Chicago. Enabling the Blackhawks’ better known snipers sheltering that lends to high scoring totals, Kruger’s 29.7% offensive zone starts percentage has helped put Kane, Hossa, Toews, Anisimov, Panarin, and Keith in favorable face-off positions.
While the lesser-known have helped spur a late season Blackhawk surge we all know momentum can shift quickly. Minnesota more or less took the first leg of 2016-17. Chicago is stealing the second in spite of Saturday. Just think what a Western Conference Finals battle we could see between these two should the Wild get back on track and the Blackhawks keep it up.
Fantrax-availability numbers on several under-heralded Chicago contributors:
John Hayden (86% available)
Niklas Hjalmarsson (78% available)
Scott Darling (49% available)
Nick Schmaltz (49% available)
Richard Panik (34% available)
Ryan Hartman (60% available)
Trevor van Riemsdyk (85% available)
Marcus Kruger (96% available)
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