Clicking Hawks Have Pushed Into Playoff Picture

The Blackhawks have won seven straight games.

Chris Emma
February 10, 2019 - 6:23 pm
Blackhawks forward Dominik Kahun celebrates a goal against the Red Wings.

Jon Durr/USA Today Sports

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- Blackhawks center Dylan Strome glided forward past the blue line with a sense of what was coming. He pushed toward the opening on the right of Red Wings goalie Jonathan Bernier and arrived just in time.

Strome timed his entrance to the crease so well that his right skate beat his stick to the backhanded pass from winger Dominik Kahun, the 23-year-old teammate with whom he has established quite the chemistry. They celebrated the goal together for the second of three occasions in the Blackhawks' 5-2 win over the Red Wings on Sunday at the United Center.

The Blackhawks sealed their seventh straight victory with Patrick Kane putting a breakaway past Bernier and then later with Jonathan Toews hitting an empty-net shot from past the blue line. But for all Kane and Toews bring the Blackhawks, this streak is just as much about Strome, Kahun, Alex DeBrincat and more.

Mostly, it's a team of core veterans and young newcomers following the lead of coach coach Jeremy Colliton, who was hired a dozen games into this season. After the Blackhawks were buried at the bottom of the Western Conference just weeks ago, they now hold hopes of the playoffs. Their latest win brought them four points back of the Blues and Wild for a wild-card spot.

"It doesn't matter," Colliton said of the standings. "We just play the next game. We have an opportunity here. We got some momentum. Guys are playing well. They're being rewarded for their hard work. We got to ride that as long as we can. 

"We got to make sure we don't think we're just going to show up and it will happen. We got to work. We got to do the right things."

That has come naturally lately for the Blackhawks, who have established chemistry after many changes in November and December. The organization fired three-time champion coach Joel Quenneville, the NHL's second-winningest coach of all time, and replaced him with the 34-year-old Colliton. 

The Blackhawks traded Nick Schmaltz, Jan Rutta and Brandon Manning and added Strome, Drake Caggiula and Brandon Perlini. They've proved to be quality complements to the core pieces. 

The 24-year-old Caggiula wore No. 9 at the University of North Dakota because he looked up to Toews, 30, who also wore No. 9 with the Fighting Sioux. Now, it's Caggiula being tasked with fitting next to Toews and Kane. Kahun has meshed with Strome and DeBrincat, junior hockey teammates together with the Erie Otters. That chemistry goes beyond the ice, with Kahun now becoming friends with Strome and DeBrincat.

Goals and wins are coming with these growing connections.

"This is what we've been working towards," DeBrincat said. "Even during the losing streak, we had a few good games. We did some things right and pucks just weren't going our way. Now, pucks are going are way and we're battling to keep the lead now instead of battling to come back. That's a big part."

Added Kahun: "It's nice to win. Everybody feels that. It's fun to be winning."

The 21-year-old Strome has come to appreciate the intensity that drives the game of Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and the Blackhawks' veterans. He notices the way they're fighting for loose pucks during this winning streak and senses the increased urgency. The Blackhawks realize the opportunity they've created, but that's only part of the equation.

Colliton's emphasis on defense has set in with the Blackhawks, who are reacting with less hesitation than before. On Sunday, the Red Wings attempted 77 shots and put 45 on goal, but only 18 of those were in "high danger" zones, according to Natural Stat Trick. Veteran Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward saved 43 shots and had help from his defense on many more.

The Blackhawks have lessened their opponents' scoring chances by taking away the most enticing zones of the ice to help goaltenders Ward and Collin Delia, who are filling in with starter Corey Crawford sidelined with a concussion. 

The better defensive presence comes from young forwards learning how to play Colliton's style.

"Everybody's bought into his system," Strome said. "We realize it works. We got to continue to do that and pushing to the playoffs."

Reaching the playoffs will be a big task for the Blackhawks, who have one more game in hand than the Avalanche, Coyotes and Oilers, who are also within striking distance. There's little margin for error in a race that may extend to the final day of the regular season. The Blackhawks have nobody to blame but themselves if they miss the playoffs. They dug this hole.

What's certain is the Blackhawks have accepted this challenge, and now they're inspiring hope that it can be done. In Colliton's view, this may only be their beginning.

"I'm just not satisfied," he said. "We're not where we want to be. We want to keep getting better. We can. There's more."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​