March 24, 2023

The Chicago Blackhawks (4-4-2) enter tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Kings (6-6-0) on a four-game losing streak. While that doesn’t mean the good vibes from their early-season success are totally gone, the Blackhawks’ recent play might be more indicative of what they will look like for the rest of the season. This group wasn’t built to win, after all.

Related: Blackhawks Surprising Early Success Will be Hard to Maintain

However, considering they’ve lost three of their past four games by one goal or fewer, Chicago has remained mostly competitive over the past week despite injuries piling up. From Jonathan Toews finding his groove to Philipp Kurashev looking like a possible breakout candidate, there are still reasons for optimism. The Blackhawks, though, will need to follow these three keys to remain a competitive bunch.

Blackhawks Need to Stay Out of Penalty Box

It might sound strange, but the Blackhawks are tied with the Minnesota Wild as the league’s second-most penalized team with 134 penalty minutes (PIM). Offseason acquisitions Max Domi and Andreas Athanasiou lead the team with 25 and 18 PIM, respectively, followed by Sam Lafferty with 11. While Chicago’s penalty kill (PK) has been solid, despite ranking in the bottom third of the league with a 74.4% success rate, the Blackhawks have been making too many trips to the box.

Athanasiou, in particular, has been taking penalties at a somewhat concerning rate. He recorded four PIM during Tuesday’s (Nov. 1) 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders. Through just 10 games, he’s nearly halfway toward matching his single-season career-high of 38 PIM, which isn’t ideal. The Blackhawks need him to stay out as much as possible, especially as someone who can drive offense and who may want to raise his value as a likely trade candidate.

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Now, it’s OK to have some aggressiveness here and there. A great example came in Sunday’s (Oct. 30) game against the Wild, in which Domi immediately stood up for Patrick Kane, who took a tough hit. However, as good as the PK has been, it’s not something the team can afford to rely on too heavily.

By all means, the Blackhawks should continue emphasizing a tough, grinding style under head coach Luke Richardson. It’s arguably led to more positives than negatives, which has been a nice change of pace. Having said that, staying out of the box should be just as important.

Blackhawks Should Embrace ‘Lead-by-Committee’ Defensive Approach

With Seth Jones out due to a right thumb injury, Richardson said postgame on Sunday that he expects the defense to lead by committee (from ‘Blackhawks keep on picking up points, fall to Wild in shootout,’ The Athletic, 10/30/22). This is something Chicago’s defensive corps should prioritize with their No. 1 defenseman out.

During Tuesday’s game, Jack Johnson and Jake McCabe were together on the first pairing, followed by Jarred Tinordi and Connor Murphy on the second pairing. Except for Murphy and maybe McCabe, none of those names would likely get top minutes on a contending club, but they’ve all looked eager to succeed. Behind Richardson and assistant coach Kevin Dean, who oversees much of the defense, all four veterans have something to offer.

Anchoring Chicago’s third pairing on Tuesday was Caleb Jones, alongside rookie Filip Roos. Despite not having the same talent level as his older brother, the younger Jones has been effective early this season. He skated just over 20 minutes during Tuesday’s game, with three shots and an assist, upping his total to five assists through eight games. Roos has also shown promise during his first six NHL games, even though he’s far from a league-caliber product.

Caleb Jones Chicago Blackhawks
Caleb Jones, Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’ll be interesting to see how the Blackhawks adapt until Jones returns. Much like losing Tyler Johnson last week, the timing of his injury couldn’t have been worse. Whether it pays off remains to be seen, but leading by committee seems to be the best approach.

Toews Has to Sustain Consistency

It’s too early to say whether Toews can have a true renaissance year, but man, he’s been playing some good hockey. For someone who’s faced so much adversity over the last few seasons, it’s been awesome to see Toews have such a promising start to 2022-23 as he rides a six-game point streak. Through 10 games, he has eight points (six goals, two assists) while looking as competitive as ever, despite the Blackhawks’ flaws.

Related: Blackhawks Roundtable: What’s Behind Team’s Hot Start?

For a player who’s done a lot for the Blackhawks, you can’t ask much more from their captain, as he’s exceeded expectations in just about every way this season. He’s been a catalyst for Chicago’s success, skating well on the second line alongside Kurashev and Taylor Raddysh. Toews must continue putting in his best effort, which has always benefited not just his linemates but the rest of the team.

Tonight’s game against the Kings should be a solid test for the Blackhawks. Like Chicago, Los Angeles has had an up-and-down season. Despite forwards Kevin Fiala and Gabriel Vilardi having impressive campaigns, the Kings have suffered from below-average goaltending, averaging 3.92 goals against per game. This could be a great chance for the Blackhawks to break through offensively and snap their losing streak before beginning a three-game road trip on Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets.

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