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Jeremy Colliton unleashes offense, finds Blackhawks’ recipe for success

Colliton said he’s giving the Hawks’ transition attack more freedom now, in a “happy medium” between last year’s run-and-gun style and this year’s defensive emphasis.

Brandon Saad scored a crucial late goal as the Blackhawks won their third straight home game Sunday.
AP Photos

Jeremy Colliton has untethered the Blackhawks’ high-flying transition attack.

During an opening 20 minutes of roaring, high-intensity hockey in Sunday’s 5-4 win over the Maple Leafs, the Hawks proved that decision was a wise one. During a closing 20 minutes of terrifying, hold-on-for-dear-life hockey, the Hawks proved that decision has its downsides.

But the Hawks must do what it takes to succeed with their roster composition, and this is clearly the solution.

“We made a conscious effort to be a bit looser when the puck turned over, so we could create more out of the ‘D’ zone in transition, and it’s helped,” Colliton said. “There’s been a lot more plays available for us. [It’s] probably closer to how it looked last year, as far as our ability to make plays out of the ‘D’ zone and through the neutral zone, and probably fits our top guys. And you can see, they’re coming to life.”

The renewed offensive emphasis, along with a tone-setting Jonathan Toews fight in the first minute, sparked a four-goal first period. Patrick Kane’s line with Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat was absolutely dominant, and the rest of the cast of forwards weren’t far behind.

The Hawks sliced through the Leafs’ defense like warm butter and inspired memories of better days gone by. Kane finished with two goals and one assist; DeBrincat tallied three assists; Toews had one goal and one assist.

“We’ve got guys throughout our lineup that can create offense,” Toews said. “You get a lead and everyone just relaxes a bit, feels like, ‘OK, we can make plays.’ Not necessarily get too risky, but just play with a little bit more creativity instead of just throwing the puck away all the time.”

The more aggressive mentality certainly created more havoc on the defensive end. The Leafs’ talented cast of scorers threw 57 shots on goal, tied for the fourth-most the Hawks have allowed in franchise history, and scored three in the third to make things interesting.

Only a late goal by Brandon Saad, which made it 5-3 at the time, and several stops in the waning seconds by Robin Lehner, whose 53 saves on the night are the most in the NHL this season, preserved the victory.

But that win, no matter how it came, is a big deal.

“The main thing for us is we needed a two-point game, and that’s what we got,” Colliton said. “Of course we’ll discuss the things that need to be better, but good to get a result.”

It will also presumably serve as positive reinforcement that this liberated offensive scheme can carry the Hawks forward.

Last year, Colliton admitted he’d given the offense free rein to carry the team, essentially conceding that the Hawks didn’t have a defense capable of doing the same. But that was always known to be temporary, and Colliton seemed insistent earlier this fall about staying patient with his low-risk, defense-first ideology.

Sunday’s policy change stands out as a notable, perhaps season-saving strategy shift, even though Colliton was quick to label it only a hybrid between last season’s run-and-gun hockey and this year’s lockdown hockey.

“It’s a happy medium,” he said. “It was a big emphasis to keep the puck out of our net, and still is. But we’ve got to score more than them in order to win. We’re trying to find the right balance, and ultimately we need to win games to stay in the race, to allow ourselves to play important games.”