Blackhawks take optimistic tone after another lost season

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CHICAGO (AP) — Patrick Kane dazzled once again. Jonathan Toews put together one of his best seasons, and Alex DeBrincat took another step forward.

And it didn’t matter all that much. Not to them, anyway.

The Chicago Blackhawks missed out on the playoffs for the second straight year, doomed by an awful start and one of the NHL’s worst defenses. For a franchise that won three Stanley Cups during an impressive nine-year run that ended in 2017, it seems like a much longer absence from the postseason.

”The best time to play is right now, in the postseason, so no doubt it’s going to be hard to sit back and watch games on TV in the first round this week,” Toews said, ”knowing that Hawks fans in Chicago would be as excited as ever, the barn would be loud and exciting to play in if we were able to find our way there. Those painful moments, you got to let them sink in and use that as motivation.”

After a couple years where it looked as if he might be on the decline, the 30-year-old Toews set career highs with 35 goals and 46 assists. Kane had a career-best 66 assists and 110 points, and the 21-year-old DeBrincat scored 41 times in his second NHL season.

But longtime coach Joel Quenneville was fired in the middle of an eight-game slide in November, and the team struggled to adjust to Jeremy Colliton’s style after he took over.

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”I think it took us a little bit too long to grasp what he was preaching,” DeBrincat said Sunday. ”I think if we grab onto it a little bit earlier we’re in a different spot right now. But I mean going into next year and it’s going to be a lot easier to have everyone on board.”

The Blackhawks went 3-12-2 in in their first 17 games after Quenneville was let go. They allowed a whopping 291 goals for the year, second worst in the league behind Ottawa, and finished with the NHL’s worst penalty kill at 72.7%.

”It’s frustrating,” said goaltender Corey Crawford, who missed Saturday night’s season-ending loss at Nashville with a groin injury that will need a couple weeks to heal. ”We want to win again, and we weren’t even close this year.”

Chicago finished sixth in the Central Division with a 36-34-12 record, just one point better than Minnesota. The top five teams in the division made the playoffs.

But there is reason for optimism after the Blackhawks finished with eight more points than they did in the previous year.

Dylan Strome was terrific after he was acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finishing with 17 goals and 34 assists in 58 games with Chicago. The Blackhawks will have more money to spend this summer in free agency than they have in years, and young defenseman Erik Gustafsson made major strides this season.

But the biggest reason for hope might be a full training camp for Colliton to work with his players. The Blackhawks went 26-15-6 in their last 47 games.

”I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress,” Colliton said. ”It took longer than we all would have liked. But I think I’m a better coach now than when I walked in, and I’m going to use that going forward.”

Chicago’s biggest offseason focus likely will be its defensemen. Duncan Keith turns 36 in July, and Brent Seabrook had a minus-6 rating this season, matching his career-worst total. There are a couple of touted prospects in the minors, but they aren’t expected to be ready for next season.

”We came up a little bit short this year. But the feeling is much different now than it was a year ago,” general manager Stan Bowman said. ”I think we have a clear path forward of how we’re going to be better next year, and just reflecting back on this season there’s been a lot of things that’s been happening with the new coach coming in and our team getting adjusted to that.

”It took some time but when you look at the last 50 games we were playing at about a 100-point pace. That’s a pretty good chunk of the schedule.”

Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: ‘No easy fix’ for emergency backup goalie situations like Ayres’

David Ayers NHL tries to fix emergency backup goalie situations EBUGS
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bill Daly told reporters that there “are no easy fixes” for the NHL regarding emergency backup goalie situations like David Ayres suiting up for the Hurricanes. Ah yes, the league definitely must do something about the scourge that is getting a feel-good story that landed on outlets such as “Today Show” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Why would any league want scores of cheap attention if it comes with even an ounce of embarrassment? Preposterous! (Sportsnet)

• You’d think hockey people didn’t need to hear this, but stories like Ayres’ is why we love sports. (The Portage Citizen)

• Great stuff from William Douglas on memorable former NHL player Mike Grier, who ranks among four black assistant coaches in the NHL. Grier explains that his father Bobby Grier inspires his work ethic, as the elder Grier once was an assistant coach for the New England Patriots. (NHL.com celebrates Black History Month)

• Plenty of big names for the U.S. roster heading into the women’s world championship, including Hilary Knight, Kendall Coyne Schofield, and Brianna Decker. If a familiar face isn’t there, it might be due to them having children. (Olympic Talk)

• Great news for the Blues, and really for hockey: Vladimir Tarasenko may return sooner than expected. As in, before the end of the regular season. (NHL.com)

• Blues GM Doug Armstrong explains why the team was quiet at the trade deadline. Frankly, Armstrong’s made enough splashes over the years that it’s understandable to sit one out. Plus, the Blues can make people roll their eyes by saying Tarasenko is their “trade deadline acquisition.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• If you only look at points, John Carlson ranks as the next Erik Karlsson when it comes to seemingly easy Norris Trophy calls. That said, the Capitals experienced a high-scoring blueliner getting downgraded before when Mike Green was at his fauxhawk’d peak. Could it happen again? Kevin Klein went into deep, fascinating detail on that question. (Japers Rink)

• Speaking of Capitals-related no-brainers, what about Alex Ovechkin playing a game in front of a Russian crowd? Daly says the league is working on it. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Adam Gretz argues that Conor Sheary can score enough to stick with Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ top line. Pittsburgh showed off its new look in a narrow loss to the Kings on Wednesday. (Pensburgh)

• When Viktor Arvidsson is rolling, the Predators often roll with him. Amid a turbulent season, it seems like Arvidsson is finding his way. That’s extremely promising for Nashville’s chances. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

• Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman lays out his plan, explaining that the draft and young players are “the lifeblood of your team.” (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Senators fans waved goodbye to key players in multiple trades now, from Karlsson to Mark Stone to now Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Could Pageau be the end of that line? (TSN)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Fleury’s shutout helps Golden Knights win 7th in a row

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Three Stars

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury is starting to get on a roll for the Golden Knights and continued that on Wednesday night with his fifth shutout of the season in a big 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. The win extend stheir lead in the Pacific Division. Fleury has now won each of his past five starts and is starting to get back on track after a mid-season slump. Vegas acquired Robin Lehner just before the NHL trade deadline to give the team some goaltending depth, and with Fleury playing the way he has lately they should have one of the best duos in the league going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights’ winning streak now sits at seven consecutive games.

2. Cal Petersen, Los Angeles Kings. Petersen was the difference in the Kings’ 2-1 win over the Penguins on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to four games. He stopped 35 shots in the win including some great scoring chances in the closing seconds to secure the win. With Jack Campbell now in Toronto, Petersen is going to get an opportunity to be the primary backup for the Kings and he put on a great show against the Penguins. Read more about the Kings’ win right here.

3. J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche. With the Avalanche’s current injury situation they need their depth to come through. It did so again on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres, and it was Compher making the biggest impact with a goal and an assist. His goal late in the third period ended up being the game-winner to help the Avalanche extend their winning streak. Read more about their win right here.

Highlight of the Night

Avalanche rookie Martin Kaut scored his first NHL goal in their win over the Sabres.

Blooper of the Night

Dustin Brown accidentally crushed his own teammate.

Suit of the Night

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar really got into the spirit of military night in Denver. This camo, though, seems more suited for duck hunting night.

Factoid of the Night

Scores

Colorado Avalanche 3, Buffalo Sabres 2
Vegas Golden Knights 3, Edmonton Oilers 0
Los Angeles Kings 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kings hold on to extend Penguins’ losing streak to 4 games

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The Los Angeles Kings played the role of spoiler on Wednesday night by stealing a 2-1 decision from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Blake Lizotte and Trevor Lewis provided the offense for the Kings, while goalie Cal Petersen was sensational in net by turning aside 35 out of 36 shots, including two great chances by the Penguins in the final seconds.

The Kings have won only four games since the start of February, but all four have been against teams either in a playoff spot or in direction competition for a playoff spot — Colorado, Calgary, Florida, and now Pittsburgh.

Los Angeles got off to a fast start on Wednesday by capitalizing on an early power play to jump out to a 1-0 lead with Lizotte’s goal, and then added some insurance in the closing seconds of the second period.

They also got a little bit of help from the goal post, including late in the first period when Penguins forward Sidney Crosby thought he had tied the game only to have a review overturn it because the puck did not completely cross the goal line.

It has to be a frustrating result for the Penguins. Not only because it is their fourth loss in a row and prevented them from gaining ground on the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division race, but also because it is the second game in a row during that streak that they probably played well enough to win only to have nothing to show for it. They outshot the Kings 36-22 on Wednesday and dominated every possession category.

Bryan Rust finally got them on the scoreboard midway through the third period to cut the deficit in half, but the Kings did a really good job locking the game down after that. It was not until the Penguins pulled goalie Tristan Jarry in the final minute for an extra attacker that they started to tilt the ice again, and it was then that Petersen stood tall and made a couple of huge saves to preserve the win.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.