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Blackhawks’ big names rounding into form as playoffs approach

Artemi Panarin and Nick Schmaltz celebrate Panarin's goal against Colorado on March 19. (Getty Images)

Patrick Kane might have been able to score the empty-netter on his own, but Seth Jones, the lone Columbus player back, began to close in on him, so Kane calmly dished the puck off to Artemi Panarin, who gladly took the easy tally in the final minute Friday night. It was Panarin’s second goal of the game and moved him into 10th place in points among the league’s forwards — a spot that would trigger a $1.725 million bonus at the end of the season.

So is Kane trying to get his buddy paid?

“Not really thinking about that so much,” he said with a laugh. “Just trying to make the right plays out there. I’m not even sure where he stands, [but] I’m sure it’ll be a topic of conversation coming down here the last couple of games.”

Last season, Panarin had seven goals and 13 assists over the last 12 games to earn his bonus. He’s closing strong again, with four goals and an assist in his last three games. While it could wreak havoc on the Blackhawks’ salary-cap situation in the offseason, it’s a nice problem to have. And Panarin is hardly the only Hawks star getting hot down the stretch. With the playoffs less than two weeks away and with the Hawks clinching the Central Division title and top seed in the Western Conference with the Wild’s loss Saturday, nearly all of the Hawks’ biggest names are peaking at the right time.

Kane has five assists in the last two games and was named the NHL’s third star of the month with 10 goals and 12 assists in 16 games in March. Marian Hossa has four goals in his last six games. Jonathan Toews has three goals and six assists in the last 10 games. Richard Panik has five goals in his last nine games. Nick Schmaltz has seven assists in his last seven games. And Corey Crawford allowed only two total goals against two of the best teams in the league, Pittsburgh and Columbus, in back-to-back impressive victories.

“I still think our best hockey’s got to be ahead of us to have all the success we’re looking for,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But our top guys, when they’re our best players, we’ll always be in a good place.”

Crawford’s strong play of late is the most encouraging of all. After a brilliant start to the season, Crawford didn’t look quite like himself after missing three weeks in December because of an appendectomy. He had a dismal .891 save percentage in January and a modest .913 in February. In March, he had a stellar .931 save percentage, giving up only one goal in five of his 12 appearances and two goals in three others.

Other than a couple of debacles against Vancouver and Florida, Crawford has been rounding into form, and not a moment too soon.

“I feel pretty good, I feel strong,” Crawford said. “It’s good to be sharp — being able to follow the play, push and get to the play early and be aggressive when I can be. It’s always good to get out there, to challenge shooters and take space away. Right now, I feel good, the team’s looking [good]. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”

With the top seed locked up, Quenneville has suggested he’ll rest some of his big-name players on the last road trip of the season — Colorado, Anaheim and Los Angeles. But with so many of his key players so hot, it’ll be a delicate balance between fanning those flames and preserving their minutes and their health for the postseason grind.

Oh, and as for Panarin’s bonus, Quenneville has never stood in the way of a player getting paid and is unlikely to start now.

“All that matters is winning hockey games, and this team has done that really well,” Crawford said. “Our top players have been the difference throughout the year in games, scoring big goals and making great plays at the right time. Our core guys are an important part, a really big part, and they show up.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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