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Friday Four: Blackhawks continue climb

NHL Network's Kevin Weekes also discusses Capitals, Hurricanes

by Kevin Weekes @kevinweekes / NHL Network Analyst

Each Friday throughout the season Kevin Weekes will be bringing you his Friday Four. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, or trends that have caught his eye.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

A month ago, the Blackhawks were trailing the Minnesota Wild for first place in the Central Division. Now they have an eight-point cushion atop the division.

Even in the absence of center Artem Anisimov (lower-body injury) who has been huge for them in the past few seasons, a lot of the role players have been stepping up, like Richard Panik (20 goals, 20 assists). Young players such as Ryan Hartman (18 goals, 11 assists) and Nick Schmaltz (six goals, 18 assists) have contributed as well.

But the Blackhawks always can rely on their superstars, who can put on their capes and go to work. Patrick Kane is among the NHL scoring leaders. Jonathan Toews is having a great second half after struggling early. And defenseman Duncan Keith has 50 points while logging tons of minutes.

There's no moment that is too big for the Blackhawks, who also have goaltender Corey Crawford to back them up. Crawford made 42 saves in a 3-2 shootout win against the Dallas Stars on Thursday and is 4-0-0 in his past five starts, making 40 saves in three of those wins.

Video: DAL@CHI: Crawford denies Hemsky to seal SO win

 

Related: Current Stanley Cup Playoffs bracket

 

Washington Capitals

How good has T.J. Oshie been? He has 30 goals in 60 games this season. To put that in perspective, Alex Ovechkin has 29 in 73 games. I always knew Oshie was a good player, but he has been a great fit in Washington. He's one of five Capitals players with at least 20 goals, joining Nicklas Backstrom (22), Marcus Johansson (22) and Justin Williams (20).

Goaltender Braden Holtby hasn't dipped from his Vezina Trophy-winning season, and Barry Trotz has done an excellent job coaching this team. The Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division and are in a tight race, but could win the Presidents' Trophy for the second straight season.

Video: CBJ@WSH: Holtby clinches Capitals' win in shootout

 

Carolina Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes are five points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference, and they have two games in hand. They quietly have gone 7-1-3 in their past 11 games. The Hurricanes have done a nice job with their group. I think that they are ahead of where they should be. Very rarely do they beat themselves.

They play a good structure, they play in the middle of the rink, they've got good detail to their game and have a lot of skill. It would be hard to find another team that has a young defense corps as good as theirs, with Justin Faulk (age 25), Jaccob Slavin (22) and Noah Hanifin (20) leading the way.

Video: CAR@NYI: Faulk wires puck top shelf past Berube

 

Nikita Kucherov

If the Tampa Bay Lightning don't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you can't blame Kucherov. He had a hat trick in a 6-3 win at the Boston Bruins on Thursday and has six goals in the past there games on 15 shots on goal. He scores from all over the ice. Kucherov has scored 37 goals and is tied for second in the League. He scored 30 goals last season and has increased his goal and point totals in each of his four seasons in the League. He's more than stepped up for the Lightning in the absence of Steven Stamkos.

Video: TBL@BOS: Kucherov tallies second PPG off ricochet

 

HONORABLE MENTION

Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis scored his 15th goal of the season in a 3-1 win against the Calgary Flames on Thursday. That's an NHL career high in goals; he also has a personal NHL high in points (35). It's surprising that Ellis has managed to have a season this good despite being third on the pecking order behind Roman Josi and P.K. Subban. Ellis has 118 shots on goal but a shooting percentage of 12.7. He also has three game-winning goals.

Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonathan Bernier has been lights out since John Gibson sustained a lower-body injury. Bernier is 6-0-1 with a .950 save percentage in his past seven games. That is more than you can ask for from your backup goalie, especially when he's forced to take over as the No. 1.

Jack Eichel and Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres continue to shine. Eichel has been producing to the level we thought he could. I spoke to a member of the Sabres staff who told me Eichel's work ethic continues to get better and he's becoming a more complete player. That's something you notice when you watch how well he has played. He's almost at a point-per-game pace with 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) in 53 games. Kane has 25 goals in 62 games, the most he's scored since he had 30 for the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-12.

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