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Blackhawks Buzz: Searching for two points in Ladd's return to Winnipeg

by Eric Lear / Chicago Blackhawks


A year ago, Winnipeg was the fifth and final Central Division team to make the playoffs. This season it appears the Central will again have five teams in the postseason, but the Jets will not be one of them. Winnipeg currently holds the last spot in the division, tied with Edmonton for the fewest points in the Western Conference (63) albeit with three games in hand; the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team league-wide with fewer points. The Jets recently strung back-to-back wins together for the first time since early February by beating Colorado and Vancouver, before dropping a 4-1 decision to Calgary on Wednesday. In that game, Winnipeg gave up three first-period goals and was beat in the faceoff circle, 39-20. Part of the regression this season can be attributed to poor special teams, as the Jets are 29th in the NHL on the power play and in the bottom third on the penalty kill.


Blake Wheeler, the fifth-overall pick in 2004, hasn’t scored a goal since the calendar flipped to March, but the 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward has distributed the puck better than any other Jet this season. The former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher has 13 more assists than his nearest teammate, and his 44 helpers tie him with Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau for seventh in the league, just two away from ranking in the top five. Wheeler, who has tallied an assist in three straight games, has become Winnipeg’s leader since Andrew Ladd, the Jets’ captain, was dealt to the Blackhawks prior to the trade deadline. Although the speedy winger has tallied just 18 goals this season—after netting 28 and 26 in the previous two campaigns—it’s not for lack of trying, as Wheeler currently leads the team with 216 shots on goal and is getting the puck on the net at virtually the same pace as he did last year (3.09 shots per game).


Blackhawks fans should be very familiar with another one of Winnipeg’s leaders: Dustin Byfuglien. The defenseman, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, ranks third on the Jets with 44 points and is the only defenseman in their top seven. The All-Star’s 16 goals rank fifth among league defenseman, trailing Brent Burns, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mark Giordano and Shea Weber. With his booming point shot and inclination to join the rush, the 30-year-old is one of Winnipeg’s most dangerous weapons whenever he’s on the ice—and he’s on the ice a lot. Much like Duncan Keith, Byfuglien plays a lot of minutes. He averages 24:51 per game, which ranks 15th in the NHL, though he’s played more than that in six of the last seven games, which includes three games logging 29 minutes on ice.


The Blackhawks’ penalty kill has struggled lately, and a big reason why has been the extended absence of Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger, two of the team’s top shorthanded performers over the last few seasons. Now Hossa, at least, is back and making an impact. In the first period of Wednesday’s game, an Artem Anisimov feed up center ice sprung Hossa on a shorthanded breakaway; the veteran winger beat Michal Neuvirth for his 32nd career shorthanded tally, padding his lead among active players. Hossa, who was playing on a line with Anisimov and Artemi Panarin on Wednesday, is inching closer to an incredible feat. The three-time Stanley Cup winner is three goals shy of 500. When he reaches the milestone, he’ll be just the 44th player in NHL history to do so. Hossa is having a down offensive year by his Hall of Fame standards, with just 11 goals and 29 points, though he has missed nearly a month due to injury to go along with a career-low 6.3 shooting percentage. However, as Wednesday’s outing and nearly every other game proves, it’s not just his offense that makes him valuable, but rather his tenacious two-way game that makes him irreplaceable.


Joel Quenneville made some dramatic changes to the lines ahead of Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Philadelphia, most notably putting Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews together on the top line. Coach Q likes to keep Kane and Toews apart to create a matchup issue for opposing teams, but when times are tough, Quenneville isn’t afraid to have the dynamic duo join forces. The impact was obvious, as those two, along with Tomas Fleischmann, posted a team-high +12 shot attempt differential at even strength against the Flyers. In the second period of the game, Toews scored his 25th goal of the year after putting pressure in the offensive zone, with the lone assist going to Kane. With that helper, Kane has reached the 90-point mark for the first time in his career, and he became the first Blackhawk to tally 90 or more points in a season since Jeremy Roenick posted 107 during the 1993-94 season.


Frustration is mounting inside the Blackhawks dressing room as the team has lost four straight games for the first time all season, though there’s no panic. The Blackhawks are a tested, veteran team that’s been down this road before, as recently as last spring, when they dropped four straight games to end the regular-season schedule before winning the franchise’s third Stanley Cup in six seasons. Despite the losing streak, the Blackhawks are still in a great position in the division, sitting just three points behind Dallas and St. Louis. First place is still within reach, but to secure home ice advantage, the Blackhawks need to start picking up points again, and it starts on Friday against a Jets team with not much but pride to play for. With Corey Crawford not making the trip, Scott Darling should get his second straight start, while Andrew Ladd is making his return to the city where he was captain for over four seasons.

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