There's no doubt that winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons is an amazing feat in today's salary cap era, and having won the Cup last year brings added pressure. Being in the Central Division, which many regard as the toughest in the NHL, doesn't provide much relief either. The Blackhawks hit the midpoint of the schedule this week with back-to-back games against Pittsburgh, and their sweep over two nights may set them up for a big second half.
Last season, the two wild cards came out of the Central, and there are early indications pointing in that direction again, although there is still a lot of hockey to play. Before winning the Cup, the Blackhawks finished the regular campaign third in the division and tallied 102 points to reach the playoffs.
In comparison with last season, the Blackhawks had 56 points with 27 victories after 41 games, and this season they are at 54 points with 25 wins, not too far off that pace. The 2010 Cup team had 59 points at the midway mark, but in 2011 the Blackhawks only had 45.
Considering the changes this season due to the salary cap, it appears that the Blackhawks seem to be finding their way recently. The positives so far have been the play of Patrick Kane and rookie Artemi Panarin on the offensive side. Artem Anisimov is on a pace to surpass his best goal-scoring season (22 goals in 2013-14). Corey Crawford has a league-high six shutouts and recently played in his 300th NHL regular-season game.
Thus far, 14 different players who weren't on the roster for the finals against Tampa Bay have suited up this season. Besides Panarin and Anisimov, newcomers include Erik Gustafsson, Phillip Danault, Dennis Rasmussen, Brandon Mashinter and Rob Scuderi.
Another positive of the strong first half has been the power play, which is among the league leaders. Improving their road record, which started off slow, will be another goal in the second half of the schedule. As Head Coach Joel Quennville has repeatedly said, the first goal is making the playoffs—and then it's a whole new season.
|Joni Tuulola (left) celebrates with teammates after Finland pulls out 4-3 overtime victory to clinch World Juniors gold. (Getty Images)|
Redemption and triumph were on the line on Tuesday as the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship wrapped in Helsinki with two medal-deciding games. With three Blackhawks prospects in contention, Chicago was once again well-represented in the silverware department.
|Gustav Forsling makes a defensive play in Sweden's semifinal loss to Finland. (Getty Images)|
One game featured a showdown between neighboring countries featuring two of the most electric offensive teams in the tournament. The other, a classic rivalry between two well-coached and well-balanced sides. The semifinal round of the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship came with high expectations and did not disappoint (despite low goal totals), setting up what should be a fantastic finale on Tuesday between Finland and Russia.
|Nick Schmaltz earned Player of the Game honors in Team USA's 7-0 victory over the Czech Republic. (Getty Images)|
Four Blackhawks prospects were in action on the first elimination day of the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship, which produced its fair share of excitement en route to settling Monday’s semifinal matchups.
|Gustav Forsling picked up a goal and assist for Sweden on Thursday. (Getty Images)|
Goodbye, preliminary round. Hello, elimination games. All four Blackhawks prospects played on Day 6 of the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship, helping their countries decide the quarterfinal matchups. Slovakia dropped a 2-1 decision to Russia, the United States overcame a spirited Denmark team 4-1, Finland defeated the Czech Republic 5-4 in a seesaw affair, and Sweden posted a 5-2 win over Canada.
|Nick Schmaltz tallied his first goal of the tournament in USA's 10-1 win over Switzerland. (Getty Images)|
With one game remaining in the preliminary round for most teams at the IIHF U20 World Championship, three Blackhawks prospects picked up their first points of the tournament during a high-scoring day of action. Sweden clinched the top spot in Group A after blanking Denmark 5-0 on a 48-9 shot differential, Finland picked up their second win with an 8-3 result over Slovakia, and the United States rode a six-goal first period on its way to recording an eventual 10-1 rout of Switzerland.
After three days at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, both groups now have a clearer picture at the halfway point of the preliminary round. All four Blackhawks prospects were in action on Monday in Helsinki, helping their countries jockey for position in the standings.
|Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images|
After Day 1 of the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Helsinki, the first four games of the tournament are in the books, and two Blackhawks prospects took the ice for their respective countries. Defenseman Joni Tuulola and hosts Finland scored five times in the third period to surge past Belarus 6-0, while forward Nick Schmaltz and Team USA defeated archrival Canada 4-2 in an opening game that was moved up from its traditional time slot of New Year’s Eve.
Each Monday, the Blackhawks Blog will highlight players who stood out for their minor-league, junior, college, or European teams in the previous week’s action. All prospect/system stats will be updated weekly throughout the 2015-16 season.
|(Photo courtesy Rockford IceHogs)|
1st Star: C Jake Dowell, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
The Line: 3GP, 3G, 2A
Dowell is enjoying his most productive offensive stretch since signing a minor-league deal with the IceHogs this season, picking up five points in three games last week to extend his point streak to six games dating back to the beginning of December. The former Blackhawk tallied twice and added an assist in a 5-3 win over Texas last Tuesday, scored the game-winner in a 2-1 win over Iowa on Friday and picked up a helper the next night in Rockford’s 4-1 loss to Grand Rapids. Dowell shares the team lead with 17 points (6G, 11A) in 24 games this season.