Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: How to beat the Blackhawks

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Hawk Talk: How to beat the Blackhawks

Saturday, May 15, 201012:15 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Contrary to that clown-car clash going on in the Eastern Conference, in its final the West boasts a battle of the best, top-dogged San Jose Sharks and second-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. Its a shot at redemption for the Tiburones and a shot at destiny for the Redshirts. Both teams are worthy of a Stanley Cup final, and either would be a prodigious favorite to win the Cup once there. So, ladies and gentlemen, the true fight to raise the greatest trophy in sports starts Sunday in San Jose. Heres how the Sharks can topple the Blackhawks:

Ninny Niemi: Sure, Antti Niemi has become a Blackhawks hero with his terrific work so far in the postseason, including a pair of shutouts in the quarterfinals -- a feat that hadnt been accomplished since Tony Esposito. But here it is: The rookie is vulnerable. He tends to hit the splits quick, leaving the top shelf open often, as well as let loose rebounds. The Blackhawks defense, for the most part, has played a great moat around the crease, keeping Amazing Antti from seeing shots and wiping up his leavings at first drop. But theres weakness there to be exploited.

A Quick Bite: One of the few openings the confident Hawks leave opponents is a mild and brief tendency to become discombobulated under duress. This may not make Chicago any different from 29 other NHL teams, but unlike most of those other teams, that standing eight-count is often the best chance you have to knock it off in a single game, much less a series. The Nashville Predators were in many ways the antithesis of the Blackhawks, a team that had to scratch and claw for any advantage over the sublimely talented Hometown Heroes. That heads-down approach gave Nashville 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the series and pushed the Blackhawks to within 14 seconds of an elimination game. Vancouver dealt Chicago a smackdown in Game 1 of the semis that left the Blackhawks dressing room more than a little stunned. San Jose coach Todd McLellan is a sharp cookie, and hes doubtlessly lecturing his charges on the advantages to pinning the Blackhawks quickly. The Sharks are at home, with the advantage theyve worked all season to use, so if they execute it to knock the Hawks down in Game 1, unease again may set in again for Chicago.

Push Their Panic Button: A Joel Quenneville team is normally immaculately prepared and motivated from the get-go, which made the malaise his team felt throughout the early stages of the Nashville series and the strangely flat start to the semis particularly perplexing. While an immediate San Jose win in the series is probably not integral to an overall conference finals win, any mucking up of Chicagos game plan could yield emotional riches down the road. Quenneville is a known tinkerer, although so far, hes been perfect with his tweaks -- his overhaul of the club prior to Game 4 of the quarterfinals yielded three straight wins and advancement and his flip of Dustin Byfuglien from the blue line to the top line was a work of art -- but shuffling for shufflings sake still can take a toll on a team, as seen in Chicagos post-Olympic stumbling. If the Sharks can find a way to push Cool Hand Qs panic button early, it could leave the Blackhawks unsettled for the duration.

On a related note, to everyones surprise, the Blackhawks admitted being ill-prepared and perhaps undermotivated after losses to Nashville in Games 1 and 3 of the quarters and Games 1 and 5 of the semis. If San Jose senses any such lack of (in Qs parlance) compete level, the Sharks can swim in and chomp the heart out of the Hawks.

Keep em Slippy-Sloppy: Normally cool and collected, Chicago was downright panic-prone in their own zone for most of the quarterfinals. While the Hawks rarely repeated such mistakes against Vancouver, that was as much a case of the Canucks being undisciplined and unable to enact a true game plan that sheer maturity on Chicagos part. A confident, skilled San Jose team can cough turnovers out of the Redshirts and will be able to bury every bumble the Blackhawks make.

Go To Smashville: Sure, the Sharks wanna bite, attack, swoop -- theyre a high-powered offense with skills to flash. But San Jose would be smart to pull a few Barry Trotz tricks out of the playbook. Button down the game and Chicagos puck-possession advantage tends to disappear. The Sharks might not have the defensive chops of Nashville that would allow them to simply dominate the series from the blue line, but they can pack enough feistiness to bring the game right to Chicagos jawline. Based on how the Blackhawks wilted in the face of some of Nashvilles physical pressure, a bit of slog-it-out brawling could go a long way in the semis.

History Never Repeats: San Jose so far has faced down the demons of playoff failures past. The Sharks just bit down hard on the closest thing the NHL has to a dynasty, dispatching the gilded (and white-hot heading into the playoffs) Detroit Red Wings like stale octopus. So theres no reason -- no, not even Chicagos decided dominance this season -- to choke or gag or have second thoughts now. Tighten up the mental jujitsu, table any vertigo, work the Shark Tank to advantage and blow right past Chicago into the franchises first Stanley Cup Finals.

Defend the Tank: Yeah, the Blackhawks have beaten San Jose both times in the Shark Tank this season, but this is the advantage the Sharks battled all season for and now a mere point in the standings has created a potential difference of four home Western Conference finals games rather than three. While Chicago clearly is not intimidated by the Shark Tank, its San Joses job to create unease and establish the tone and tenor of the series from Game 1 forward. Grant the Blackhawks even a split in these first two games and the Sharks have not only lost their home-ice advantage, theyve swung momentum drastically in Chicagos favor and increased the likelihood of returning to California for a must-win Game 5.

Top Line is Go! The Sharks boast a top-six on offense that is a beast, and while the Blackhawks boast better depth overall, sometimes that depth can spread responsibility too thin -- witness Jonathan Toewss everyone is waiting for someone else to do it disgust after Chicagos Game 5 loss to Vancouver. Theres no such question of where to place the burden with San Jose. Strategically, San Joses strength plays right into Chicagos weakness. The Sharks love to linger deep and deftly maneuver in the shadows of the defense -- and thats just the sort of attack that makes the Blackhawks nervous and prone to fumbles. Plus, a calm, collected San Jose offense will end up being its best defense as well -- the Blackhawks puck-possession game is predicated on keeping the puck out of the Chicago zone and opponents on their heels.

A Steady Hand: OK, Evgeni Nabokov didnt have his best season against the Blackhawks this season, being run from the first Sharks-Hawks tilt in San Jose on Nov. 25 and nearly dealt the same blow in the Tiburones Tank on Jan. 28. But historically, Nabokov has been strong against Chicago: 14-6-5 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. And if he builds on the second and third periods of that Jan. 28, as well as his masterful work in stopping 45 Chicago shots in a Dec. 22 win at the United Center, the Sharks will boast a massive advantage in net for the series.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

GM Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton met with the media before Wednesday's on-ice session to discuss a variety of prospect-driven topics.

Here are some of the highlights from their availability, in addition to thoughts and takeaways from Day 3 of Blackhawks development camp at Fifth Third Arena:

1. What the Blackhawks are looking for this week

It's easy to get caught up in prospect camp and put stock into on-ice performances, but that's not what the Blackhawks are doing this week. In fact, the on-ice portion is just a fraction of what these players have on the agenda.

"The big thing for us is to watch these kids, how much they can absorb," Bowman said. "We're throwing a lot of information. These are long days for them to have. Seminars in the morning then they come over and do on-ice work, then they do off-ice work and at the beginning of the week we have a cooking demo for them to learn how to prepare food. So at the end of the day it's a full day for them."

Colliton also brought up a valid point about prospects being at different stages in their summer training. Some players are skating for the first time since their seasons ended and are shaking off some rust. Some have already been training for months. Some players had long years because of deep postseason runs. So yeah, this week is not about evaluation.

"We gotta be careful," Colliton said. "This is a snapshot. At training camp and Traverse City it’ll be a much easier job to evaluate how close anyone is."

2. Early impressions of Kirby Dach

The Blackhawks did extensive research on Dach before drafting him No. 3 overall. On the ice, off the ice, analytics, you name it. But they're finally able to spend some time with him under their own roof and see his habits, how he carries himself, etc. and the early impressions are strong from the coaching staff and management.

"It's hard not to notice his skill level," Bowman said. "He's a big guy but he's got really soft hands, he's got that long reach and he's got a quick stick. He's pretty tricky with the puck. He's got the ability to hold it out so that guys can't poke it away and if they try to get it he can pull it through. He's got quick hands. And I think that's what you notice. He skates well for a big guy.

"These are all things that we liked about him when we drafted him but when you get him here and put him up against guys that are a couple years older, he's able to do some special things with the puck. He's got all the excitement to be on the ice, he's a competitive kid, he's focused, but he's enjoying himself and he's got a combination of attributes that we wish everybody had."

Said Colliton: "It’s tough not to notice him out there. Big, big kid who skates really well, got a lot of skill, makes a lot of things happen out there and seems to have a great work ethic and be a great kid. ... He’s been impressive, for sure."

3. Adam Boqvist turning pro?

When we talked to him on Monday, Boqvist made it known that he wanted to turn pro as quickly as possible and felt ready for it after one season in the OHL with the London Knights. And it seems like the management group is ready for that to happen, also.

"We're probably leaning towards that," Bowman said. "I don't know that we've made any declarations that's what he's going to do. In talking to Adam I think he wants to take that next step. It's probably looking like that, but nothing's been determined for sure."

4. Blackhawks accepting of Ian Mitchell's decision

After his sophomore season at Denver, Mitchell had a decision to make: turn pro or return to college for another year? 

The Blackhawks felt like he was ready to take the next step. Perhaps Mitchell felt so too, but returning to school for one more season, in his eyes, allows him to hone his craft even more and become a better all-around, consistent player before making the jump. That's why he made the decision to go back for one more season, and the Blackhawks are accepting of that.

"You got to give him credit," Bowman said. "He feels like there's unfinished business and I think he's committed to the team and committed to his teammates. He wants to lead that team and he wants to be, in his words, a difference-maker every night. I thought he had a great season last year and selfishly we think he's ready to be a pro. On the other side of it, you got to be where you are. So if he feels the right place for him is Denver then you want to be committed to that and you want him to lead that team and you want him to continue to improve.

"I think what we're looking for him to do is build on that and become a dominant player like he wants to be. Yeah, we would love to have him as a pro right now but I think he's going to be a pro pretty soon. So let him focus on his path. He has to believe in what he's doing and it's not for us to try to talk him in and out of things. Wherever he is, we're going to support him. But he's ready to be a pro right now. With a year in college as a dominant player he'll be even more ready to be a pro."

5. Looking for the next Collin Delia?

The Blackhawks brought six goalies to development camp. Two of them are draft picks — Dominic Basse and Alexis Gravel. The other four are here on invites: Devin Cooley, Stefanos Lekkas, Mareks Mitens and Zackarias Skog. They don't have to look far to see that an impressive showing could turn into a contract.

This is exactly how Delia caught the attention of the Blackhawks.

"We did this a couple years ago with Collin Delia and now look where Collin is," Bowman said. "I think that's the message to these players is you're here for a reason because we think you've got skill and potential as a goalie, and we want to see how you perform this week, how do you take feedback, what's your work ethic like and then we're going to follow them.

"It's not out of the realm that a couple years from now these guys could become Blackhawks. They're not all going to fall into that category but if they show well and they impress us, I think Collin came back two years in a row and then we signed him so these guys are here to try to impress us and show us that they could become Blackhawks."

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Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

It's mid-July and the Blackhawks' roster looks very different from when it ended the 2018-19 season. GM Stan Bowman has added an influx of new faces this summer, whether that's been in the form of trades or free-agent signings.

Now it's up to Jeremy Colliton and his coaching staff to decide how they want to map out the lineup. They might have an idea of how they want to utilize specific players, but the real competition starts in training camp and that's exactly what the organization wants.

"Yeah, we’ve done a lot," Colliton said before Wednesday's on-ice session at development camp. "We’ve really increased the depth in our group, everywhere. In goal, on defense, up front, we have competition throughout the roster for roster spots, for roles. I think we have more versatility to our team, we have defenders who can play either side, we have guys who want to kill penalties and defend and take that role, we have forwards who can play different positions, kill penalties, play against good players. So we feel that’s what we were missing to our team."

"We’ve added a little bit of physicality and an edge, which we need to have that dimension. We have to win games in different ways, and I think if you compare the roster now to the one we ended with or the one we had when I first came in November, I think we can win in different ways and we’re prepared to have an excellent season, hopefully."

One of the main storylines to follow during the 2019-20 season will be how the goaltending workload is divided between Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner. You have a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Vezina Trophy finalist to share the starts with, and Colliton expects it to be a healthy battle among the two veteran netminders.

"There's going to be competition, certainly," Colliton said. "But I think you look at the teams that have had success, there has been a share — some sort of split. It's not 60, 70 games one guy's taking. Those games that maybe traditionally the backup is playing, we need to win those too. So now whoever is in the net, we're going to get an extremely high level of performance. And if we happen to be unlucky with injuries, we have some protection there too."

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