The Blackhawks went 1-1-0 in their back-to-back against two Central Division foes with a 4-1 loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday at United Center and a 4-1 win over the Jets on Thursday at Bell MTS Place.
1. Duncan Keith hasn’t missed a beat since returning from a nine-game absence.
Getting Keith back on the blue line has already paid dividends. It gives Adam Boqvist and Dennis Gilbert a chance to learn from a legend, and the ‘little things’ Keith brings every shift were on full display in the back-to-back:
- Tight gaps on puck carriers in the neutral zone and during zone entries. One example that stands out was when he took away space from Nathan MacKinnon near the defensive zone blue line, read his toe drag move and stripped the puck with ease.
- Has an active stick in the d-zone that consistently deflects passes that leads to takeaways and clean breakouts.
- Confidently streaks across the ice to support his d-partner when the Blackhawks outnumber the opponent in the neutral zone and forces the puck carrier to dump the puck in or turn it over.
- Adds an extra layer to the Blackhawks offensive zone attack when he jumps into the rush or starts a rotation near the offensive blue line, which often breaks down the opponent’s defensive structure and opens up shooting lanes.
It’s great to have Keith back and healthy. He’s already back to leading defensemen in ice time, per usual, with 46:42 minutes in the past two games. Keith also fired eight shots, picked up three hits and four blocks and at 5-on-5 generated a 50.6 Corsi-For and a 57.3 expected goals for rate.
2. Penalty kill conversions
With a 4-for-4 performance on the penalty kill during the back-to-back, Chicago has crept up to No. 15 in the NHL with a 80.4-percent success rate. That’s nearly an 8-percent jump from last season’s brutal 72.7-percent success rate.
Ryan Carpenter, Connor Murphy, Jonathan Toews and Keith led the way with more than four minutes of shorthanded ice time. The foursome combined for three blocks and even generated a scoring chance against Colorado.
The most impressive penalty kill was five minutes into the second period against Winnipeg. Chicago was aggressive, kept the puck near the boards and away from the danger zone and pounced on any fumbled pucks or missed passes. The Jets barely got any zone time.
Keeping the dangerous power plays of the Jets and Avalanche from converting was a nice accomplishment and something to use as a confidence builder.
3. Brandon Saad’s right ankle injury gives Dylan Sikura an opportunity to re-join lineup.
There was some unfortunate news from the win in Winnipeg with Jeremy Colliton announcing Saad will be out a ‘couple weeks’ with a right ankle injury. However, it could have been a lot worse as a knee injury.
Saad has been arguably the Blackhawks’ most consistent two-way forward this season:
Lehner on Saad's injury:— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) December 20, 2019
"We've had some injuries this year, for sure. [Saad] is tough. He's such a big part of our team. Probably our hardest worker on a nightly basis and he brings a lot of momentum to our game."
Losing him will be another major hurdle to overcome, but it does create an opportunity for Sikura to re-join the lineup after being a healthy scratch for five straight games. With Drake Caggiula and Andrew Shaw (concussion protocol) getting closer to returning, this could be a career defining opportunity for Sikura to show he belongs in the NHL.
Sikura will be well rested and it will be interesting to see if Colliton sticks Sikura on Toews’ wing on Saturday in Colorado or if Nylander moves up to the top line.