The new and improved Blackhawks and why - FOX 32 News Chicago

The new and improved Blackhawks and why

Updated: April 04, 2012 4:23 PM CDT
CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews has been out of action since playing on February 19 versus St. Louis.

Toews appears close to returning from a concussion but it isn't etched in stone whether he will be back for the Minnesota game on Thursday. It has been reported Toews will travel with the team but will not play.

The sad truth is Toews could still have a setback Wednesday or Thursday which prevents him from playing in the regular season. That would be bad but not necessarily devastating, but if Toews is forced to miss the playoffs the Blackhawks would be in desperate straits. For now, Hawk fans will have to stay hopeful, yet pensive Toews will soon be as good new.

Hockey like other professional sports is always a challenge to figure out. Although the Blackhawks have been without Toews, Steve Montador, Duncan Keith and other significant players they have held serve, actually that would be an understatement. Despite being shorthanded, the Hawks have played their best hockey of the season.

So how did the Hawks improve their game without Toews and others?

The most important change for the Hawks over the last six weeks was their mindset.

The players have finally accepted the messages that head coach Joel Quenneville has seemingly preached all season. Maybe it was the stark reality of failure during the nine game losing streak. For the first four months of the season this club seemed to get by, but didn't necessarily play the correct way. The Hawks would give up bad goals but still be able to outscore opponents.

The emphasis by players was to look for more goals as that's the solution they knew to get out of trouble. Lessons are often more difficult to learn without failure. Human nature leads us to rely on what has worked in the past and often that is the easiest path to take as well. Staying on the same course, especially considering all the injuries and the suspension to Keith, would have spelled real trouble for the Blackhawks.

There appears to have been a collective realization by the players that unless defensive coverage was made a priority they could miss the playoffs. The Hawks have finally found how to become a team which is hard to play against. When they have the puck they are holding onto it longer by simplifying their game and are more aware in all three zones. The club has become more physical by working harder along the boards. The Hawks for the most part haven't stayed out on the perimeter. They have battled for pucks and have consistently gone to scoring areas.

No doubt the addition at the trade deadline of defenseman Johnny Oduya by GM Stan Bowman was important. Oduya hasn't been perfect but considering how much he has been relied on, his performances have been very good. Oduya has expanded his role to helping on special teams and the smooth skating defender has fit in well.

Bowman's best trade deadline move may have been by subtraction, not addition.

Finally, Bowman and others in management came to the realization having John Scott on the roster was a mistake. The inept Scott wasn't an effective hockey player but more of a team mascot or security blanket.

As a group, the Hawks played a softer game when Scott was around. Maybe his very presence was more a crutch Hawk players could lean on. It takes a lot more than fighting to make a team tough and really Scott seldom fought anyway.

Brandon Bollig, Scott's replacement, may never become the NHL heavy champion but that's not important. What does matter is with Bollig or a similar player the Blackhawks now have a chance to be a four-line team. A player devoid of skill and who is slow doesn't have a place in the NHL these days, at least not with the Blackhawks.

There have been players who have jacked up their performances and have made a meaningful difference.

At the top of the list is Patrick Kane, who at one time looked to be destined to finish the season with fewer than 20 goals. Besides the added scoring of late, Kane has become a more complete player with the move back to the center position.

Kane is the best perimeter player in the NHL but now he has become more physical. Kane still makes slick passes but he also has been working hard along the boards and has gone strong to the net. Since the absence of Toews, Kane has played his best hockey of the season. It might be more accurate to say Kane has played the best hockey of his career.

Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg have emerged as important players for Quenneville.

Kruger has a bad habit of not shooting but he is responsible with the puck and has great hockey sense. Being teamed with Stalberg and Patrick Sharp, Kruger doesn't need to shoot much to be effective. Kruger contributes on special teams as well and the only question is if he can stay healthy.

Stalberg is now considered a top forward on the Blackhawks. He not only has been finishing his scoring chances but more importantly Stalberg hasn't been a liability. Quenneville doesn't need to hesitate to skate Stalberg in close games. 
Stalberg has been working hard with and without the puck.

Much has been made, and deservingly so, that Stalberg has 21 goals and none have come on the power play. With 42 even strength points, Stalberg should be a plus player but that has only recently come about. Stalberg is a plus six, which isn't a lot considering his scoring totals but this is the Blackhawks, who have many goals against.

What is most important is Stalberg is more responsible and because he is more aware his minutes have increased. Last game Stalberg played slightly over 20 minutes and in his previous 10 games, has averaged over 16 minutes of ice time. Good news for Stalberg and the Hawks because he can't score goals and contribute by sitting on the bench.

Another prime time contributor has been Brent Seabrook. He has been a monster on the blueline and is the Hawks best defenseman. Seabrook has been physical and has been passing the puck well. His shooting accuracy has been better as he has tied his career high of nine goals. Seabrook has been the glue the Hawks have needed in their own zone and has pitched in on offense as well.

Last but not least, Andrew Shaw has become a difference maker for the Blackhawks. More so than his lofty scoring totals is the way Shaw plays the game as a rookie. Shaw has a skill set the Hawks have lacked. He is tough, has good hands and goes to the net without fear and has been rewarded by scoring goals.

Shaw also stands his ground and causes trouble for opposing goalies on the power play. The youngster seems to always be around the puck because his hockey awareness is high quality. Shaw scores, as well as sets up teammates, because he finds the open ice. That talent appears to come naturally to Shaw.

Shaw was brought up to be a fourth line grinder but he has proven to be more. Now, Shaw is a big part of the Hawks offense and will be a target of opposing teams in the playoffs. For the most part, Shaw hasn't taken careless penalties and it will be important to continue throughout the post-season. A less than focused Shaw could get thrown off his game and spend too much time in the penalty box.

An opponent would love the tradeoff of Shaw sitting in the box with one of their fourth line players as he has proved to be more than a role player. Shaw has to continue to play hard and must avoid being baited into bad penalties.

Al's Shots

With the possible return of both Keith and Toews, the Blackhawks have to avoid a letdown. Players can't take a night off because a couple of important contributors are returning.

Dave Bolland has also been declared out for Thursday's game. Bolland's condition has been deemed an upper body injury. His status is "day to day" and the injury is not thought to be serious.

The Hawks need to keep their heads up and avoid possible injury because the Wild aren't very friendly. There seems to be some dislike by Minnesota, especially for Kane.

Maybe the Wild, and they aren't alone, don't appreciate Kane's exaggerated goal scoring celebrations. Kane has basically been the same way since his first NHL goal and that is his personality.

When a player scores in a shootout, they normally don't celebrate a lot, the same can be said for Kane. It's different, and players don't like to show up an opposing goaltender who is out there alone.

On Sunday night, the Wild's Devin Setoguchi scored the game winner in a shootout on Ray Emery. He then celebrated ala Kane, and I don't think it was by accident.

Thursday night's game should be very interesting on a few levels.

Follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia

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