On Sunday, the Blackhawks didn’t look like a playoff-bound team during the opening 40 minutes while facing the St. Louis Blues. As a matter of fact, the Blues were playing an almost-perfect road game. They were responsible in all three zones and the Hawks struggled to mount an attack. For much of the afternoon, the Blues stifled the Hawks offense as well as the enthusiasm of many of the 22,077 in attendance.
All seemed to be going according to plan for St. Louis, and if not for a stellar performance by Corey Crawford the Blackhawks would have lost an important Central Division contest. The Blues were by far the better squad until the third period, but it wasn’t enough. The Blackhawks were not to be denied and came away with a 3-1 victory.
Up until Sunday, the Blues had allowed only four goals in the third period during a 22 game run. In the final frame, the Hawks put two past standout goaltender Brian Elliott and added one more into an empty net. Elliott and goaltender partner Jaroslav Halak have been an unbelievable duo. Each goalie has recorded six shutouts this season, which has never happened before in the NHL.
Sunday, Elliot was solid, but Crawford was better as the Blues had more good scoring chances than the Hawks. Both teams scored a fluky goal and it’s safe to say this was a goalie win for the Blackhawks. In a span of three games, Crawford has allowed only four goals on 88 shots.
Lately the Hawks have been much maligned as a group. For much of this season Crawford, Bryan Bickell, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have caught the ire of Blackhawk faithful. In the last three games, not only have the Hawks been victorious, but those who had been shown the most scorn deserve to be praised.
Against the Blues, Bickell did some nice work along the boards and used his size effectively. He picked up an assist on the game winner and has been skating with a purpose. With the help of Bickell’s strong effort, the Hawks finally got the puck deep into the St. Louis zone. Over the past three contests Bickell is a plus three and has notched two assists.
Kane did some heavy lifting as he was working hard to create chances and to get into prime scoring areas. Kane made his way to the front of the net on the Hawks opening score and helped to disrupt Elliott. During the Hawks winning streak, Kane is a plus five and has scored one goal while adding two assists.
Keith has had trouble hitting the net all season but made no mistake on Sunday to beat Elliott with a one timer. Keith has had a new partner in rookie Dylan Olsen and the duo has been good. Keith has been a plus six over the last three games and has recorded a goal and two assists.
Sunday’s contest was game number 60 for the Blackhawks, and unfortunately Joel Quenneville is still searching for the best mix. Coach Q. needs to find solid third and fourth line combinations or the Hawks will continue to struggle down the stretch.
Quenneville is giving Viktor Stalberg a try with Dave Bolland and Bickell as Michael Frolik has been a frequent healthy scratch. In some ways, Stalberg has the same poor puck management issues as Kris Versteeg did a few years ago. Quenneville had success in using Versteeg on the checking line and he appears to be looking for the same from Stalberg.
Some can view the previous two Blackhawk wins with some suspicion. Even though the Hawks prevailed over the somewhat disinterested Rangers and lowly Blue Jackets, their defensive play has been better. The Hawks improvement has come about because the entire club has been more focused and dedicated.
The victory against St. Louis wasn’t picture perfect but there was little doubt the Blues realized the importance of the contest. Good clubs find a way to win and the Blackhawks did just that. Not to be forgotten is that the Hawks have been able to succeed although playing without injured defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador.
Hawks shooting accuracy finally improved in the third period as they hit the net with almost every shot. Shots on net along with traffic and players getting into position to score can make a big difference, but that requires hard work every shift.
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