At .500, Blackhawks in search of consistency
It's been fascinating to watch the wild mood swings of Blackhawks fans this season.
One day everyone wants to know when Jeremy Colliton and Stan Bowman are going to be fired. A week later they're intrigued by a run of winning hockey and start thinking about a possible postseason appearance.
Another loss or two brings a fresh wave of consternation; then the pendulum swings right back, especially when the Hawks do something like upset the 20-3-6 Boston Bruins on Thursday and follow that up with a 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey the next night.
Now, after a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss to Arizona, the Hawks are again a .500 hockey team -- one that is still learning what it takes to win consistency in a league in which parity runs amok.
There have certainly been some positive signs of late, including:
• Alex DeBrincat scoring in back-to-back-to-back games for the first time since late last season. Perhaps this will serve as a springboard for the forward to start pouring in goals the way he expects.
• Dylan Strome returning from a concussion with a goal and 2 assists in the 2 victories. He was sorely missed in the previous four games.
• The power play getting some traction. After a 12-game stretch in which the Hawks were an abysmal 4-for-34, they managed to go 3-for-7 on the man advantage in the last three contests. (It would help, however, if they drew more penalties, but that's not going to happen until they control the puck in the offensive zone more frequently).
• The emergence of Dennis Gilbert. Taking the place of a sick Olli Maatta, Gilbert impressed with some hard-nosed, strong, physical play in 14-plus minutes at Boston and New Jersey. He then stepped up and fought Arizona's Jason Demers after Demers' dangerous hit on DeBrincat on Sunday. Gilbert is young and raw, but the 23-year-old D-man deserves a long look if he keeps this up.
So just who are these Blackhawks?
Truth be told, they're like half the teams in the league -- one that has a few high-end scorers and plays wildly inconsistent defense.
Their true strength lies in the goaltending. As long as Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford continue befuddling opponents the way Lehner did against Arizona on Sunday, the season doesn't figure to get away from them.
Up next is a critical three-game road trip against Vegas (15-12-5), Arizona (18-10-4) and St. Louis (18-7-6). After that, it's four tough games against division foes Minnesota (7-1-3 in its last 11), Colorado (19-8-2), Winnipeg (18-10-2) and Colorado again.
With Andrew Shaw going on long-term injured reserve and Duncan Keith remaining out indefinitely, this stretch will give Dominik Kubalik, Kirby Dach, Alex Nylander, defensemen Adam Boqvist, Dennis Gilbert and others extra ice time and extra opportunity to help the Hawks start making some headway in the standings.
The logjam for the two wild-card spots is a sight to behold. Going into Monday's games, the Hawks were just 4 points behind Vancouver, which occupies the second spot. That doesn't sound too bad until you realize they also must climb over Calgary (34 points), Minnesota (32), San Jose (32) and Nashville (31).
On the one hand, it seems a bit silly to scrutinize the wild-card picture with 52 games remaining. On the other, a four-, five- or six-game losing streak can push a team so far down that the mountain becomes all but impossible to climb.
That's why it's so critical for the Hawks to find the consistency Colliton is looking for.
But how do they do that?
"I think just managing the game," Colliton said after practice Monday. "That's the biggest thing. Understanding when we've got to just move the puck ahead -- (like) on the penalty kill (as you) force them to come 200 feet to create a chance.
"Understanding where you are in your shift. Maybe (our) 'D' are tired (and) need a change. It doesn't mean we can't make plays. You can skate it, skate the puck, make plays to advance the puck or put it ahead.
"Just manage the game. Put ourselves in good position. And then maybe the next line -- or the line after that -- they reap the benefit of a decision you made. We're working on doing that more consistently."
Sounds like a plan. Now it's just up to the entire team to execute it.
Game in. And game out.
Scouting reportScouting report
Blackhawks vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 9 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena
TV: NBCSCH • Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: Vegas (15-12-5) has been without Marc-Andre Fleury for the last seven games as the goaltender dealt with the death of his father. Fleury is back with the team, however, and could face the Hawks. Vegas went 4-2-1 in his absence. … Reilly Smith (12 goals), Mark Stone (11) and Max Pacioretty (10) are the Golden Knights' leading goal scorers. Smith has just 2 goals in the last 14 games. … The Hawks have split their two meetings with Vegas this season. Their 5-3 victory on Nov. 13 was the first time they'd ever defeated the Golden Knights, who entered the league in 2017-18. … The Hawks are averaging just 2.43 power plays over the last seven games. That number drops to 1.83 if you take out the 6 they got against Colorado on Nov. 30.
Next: Arizona Coyotes, 8 p.m. Thursday at Gila River Arena
-- John Dietz