Blackhawks return to Chicago hoping for cleaner execution in transition offense

Coach Jeremy Colliton focused on improving the Hawks’ counterattacks during practice Monday, the team’s first at home in two weeks. “We feel like we’re leaving a little bit on the table in transition,” he said.

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The Blackhawks felt they weren’t sharp or urgent enough with counterattacks against the Lightning.

AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

For the first time since Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14), the Blackhawks entered Monday outside of a playoff spot. The Blue Jackets had matched the Hawks with 33 points in 32 games and held the tiebreaker of regulation wins, nine to eight.

With that reality in mind, the Hawks hit the ice in Chicago for the first time in two weeks, their 1-5 road trip finally in the past.

The full squad, including a cleared-for-contact Kirby Dach, practiced at Fifth Third Arena with a heavy emphasis on transition offense.

Coach Jeremy Colliton hopes improvement in that area can jump-start the team.

“We feel like we’re leaving a little bit on the table in transition,” Colliton said. “We can execute better and have more of a killer instinct in those situations.”

The drills in Colliton’s practices usually involve relatively few participants at a time. Two-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three situations are most common, whether players are rushing the length of the rink or contained in one zone. Colliton doesn’t run full-line rushes as often as other NHL coaches and teams do.

He didn’t run full-line rushes Monday, either, but he did incorporate a new four-on-three drill that forced the Hawks to complete passes cleanly and move the puck through the neutral zone before closing in on the goalie. Another variation incorporated neutral-zone puck retrievals into the sequence.

“[We need to] be clean, be quick, play fast and then take advantage of those three-on-two, four-on-three [rushes] that hopefully we’re going to create,” he said.

“It’s one thing to have a play to make; you’ve got to make it. When you do that, you’re able to expose teams before they’re able to get numbers back to defend. We want to be fast, but part of being fast is making those plays, so it’s something we’ve been focusing on.”

After the loss to the Lightning on Saturday, Colliton noted his team had plenty of opportunities to create scoring chances — particularly in the third period — but squandered them because of a lack of urgency and sharpness.

When they had breakaway or two-on-one opportunities, they did take them. Stellar Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, however, just shut them down. But they seemed less eager to rush ahead for counterattacking opportunities when larger numbers of Hawks and Lightning were involved in the play.

That lack of offensive volume was a trend throughout the road trip. During five-on-five play, the Hawks averaged only 31.5 shots and 16.0 scoring chances per game. That was their worst six-game stretch this season; they had averaged 41.4 shots and 20.6 chances per game previously.

“We just have to be a little bit sharper, whether it’s setting someone else up with a better pass tape-to-tape or finishing it off by shooting the puck,” winger Mattias Janmark said. “The intentions are there, and we can be a little bit quicker. As soon as we win the puck, everybody be ready, everybody get open.”

Maintaining Dylan Strome’s momentum — he has been excellent in his first two games back from a concussion — and getting Dach back as soon as possible will help the Hawks’ offense overall, but particularly in this aspect.

David Kampf and Pius Suter aren’t exactly counterattacking maestros between Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat on the first line. Strome, who has more of those playmaking elements, was elevated to that top center role for most of the game Saturday and could start there Tuesday against the Panthers.

Colliton said there still isn’t a timeline for Dach’s return, but his “ability to push the pace from goal line to goal line” will be helpful when he is cleared.

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