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Blackhawks to let chemistry take hold in run to Trade Deadline, GM says

Thanks to recent surge after slow start, Bowman wants to see current group keep pushing, improving

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- Much has changed for the Chicago Blackhawks.

After a 4-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 18, they were 13-16-6 and in a 1-4-1 funk. Since then? They've gone 11-4-0.

They've won five straight and are three points behind the Arizona Coyotes for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference entering their game against the Florida Panthers at United Center on Tuesday (8:30 p.m. ET; ESPN+, NBCSCH, FS-F, NHL.TV).

"A month ago, we were in a tough spot," general manager Stan Bowman said, scouting the BioSteel All-American Hockey Game at USA Hockey Arena on Monday. "We've played really well, and I think if we can build off of that, then it's exciting."

The 2020 NHL Trade Deadline is Feb. 24.

"I think right now we've got to let it unfold a little bit more," Bowman said. "We still have another month until the deadline before we have to really decide what we're going to do. Kind of give this group a chance to continue on this push we're on."

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Bowman said the Blackhawks needed to find their game this season, for whatever reason.

"I think in the beginning of the year, we were maybe a little too robotic," he said. "We were thinking a lot, and we were just a little bit slow on everything. We were trying to do the right thing, but it just took time for, I guess, the way we want to play to take hold, and now it's …

"I don't want to say it happened overnight, but in the last five or six weeks, I think we're just playing more instinctive hockey but with the right habits and more as a team."

It has happened despite injuries to veterans -- or maybe, in a way, because of them.

Forward Andrew Shaw (concussion protocol) has missed the past 24 games, defenseman Calvin de Haan (shoulder) the past 19, defenseman Brent Seabrook (shoulder/each hip) the past 16, forward Dylan Strome (ankle) the past six. Forward Drake Caggiula (concussion protocol) missed 27 games from Nov. 13-Jan. 7. Forward Brandon Saad (ankle) missed 12 from Dec. 21-Jan. 15.

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"Sometimes when that happens, I think your team maybe simplifies their game a little bit," Bowman said. "So we're probably a little bit more simplistic in our approach. But our top guys are really on their games now, so you add that up, you get a lot of wins."

Forward Patrick Kane has 62 points (24 goals, 38 assists) in 50 games, 18 more than any of his teammates. Center Jonathan Toews has heated up, with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in his past 23 games after 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in his first 27. Defenseman Duncan Keith continues to lead Chicago in average ice time (23:48). Goalie Robin Lehner is 15-7-4 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

They're the engine. But meanwhile, younger players are developing. Rookie forward Dominik Kubalik, 24, has 32 points (21 goals, 11 assists) in 48 games, including 14 points (10 goals, four assists) in his past nine. Forward Alex DeBrincat, 22, has 34 points (12 goals, 22 assists) in 50 games. Strome, 22, has 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 40.

Rookie defenseman Adam Boqvist, 19, has six points (two goals, four assists) in 25 games, and rookie forward Kirby Dach, who turned 19 on Tuesday, has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 44. But though they haven't broken out yet offensively, they have come a long way and have the potential to go much further. Boqvist was the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Dach the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

"I was looking at our top power play," Bowman said. "We've got [Dach], and we've got a [Boqvist] running a power play from the top, and they've both played, like, 30, 40 games in the League. They don't look like they're a deer in headlights anymore. I think maybe early on, they were trying to survive. Now, they look to me like they're trying to push forward and make a difference. 

"We haven't really had that. We haven't had young, high-end players growing as the year went on. We still have Strome and DeBrincat that are young too, that are going to keep getting better. So I think that's why we have a little bit different flavor than previous years. We've got younger players that are playing a pretty big role. So that should give us a bigger potential for improvement."

After their game against the Panthers, which will feature the return of three-time Stanley Cup champion coach Joel Quenneville to Chicago, the Blackhawks have the All-Star break and their League-mandated five-day break. They will play seven of their next eight games on the road, starting at the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 1, but they have been better on the road (12-9-3) than at home (12-11-3).

"There's that top group of teams that have separated themselves, and then there's kind of the bottom group," Bowman said. "So we're not in either of those. We're in that big group in the middle. So yeah, it's going to be telling. What do we do over the next stretch?"

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