Blackhawks working to make tenacious forecheck part of their identity
During three practice days before Friday’s home opener, coach Luke Richardson will emphasize playing quickly through the neutral zone and aggressively on the forecheck.
A long break only three games into their regular-season schedule has given the Blackhawks another miniature training camp of sorts.
After staying an extra day in California — in the wake of their victory Saturday against the Sharks — for a team golf outing, the Hawks practiced Tuesday in Chicago and will do so again Wednesday and Thursday before hosting the Red Wings in their home opener Friday.
Coach Luke Richardson is using the opportunity to work on the Hawks’ communication and sorting of man assignments in defensive coverage and to emphasize playing faster and more aggressively in the neutral zone and on the forecheck. Those were areas of focus during training camp, too, but the Hawks now have more film to break down and a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses.
‘‘Our team did a really good job tracking [the puck], our ‘D’ were having good gaps and we were ending [opponent possessions] early,’’ forward Tyler Johnson said. ‘‘But there are times where we get the puck and, instead of just moving it north right away, try to look for that perfect play or try to look around.
‘‘If we can get it in our heads that we know exactly where everyone’s going to be once we turn the puck over . . . we’re a pretty good team. In San Jose, there was a very good stretch there where we did that: We just played north-south.’’
On Wednesday, Richardson will show the team one particular play from the third period Saturday that demonstrates what he wants to see more often.
In it, Jarred Tinordi retrieved a dump-in behind the Hawks’ net and immediately passed the puck up to Philipp Kurashev in the neutral zone. Kurashev, in turn, immediately deflected it into the Sharks’ zone. The puck traveled from goal line to goal line within three seconds, and the Hawks transitioned from retrieval to breakout to forecheck — exemplifying the ‘‘north-south’’ approach.
Sharks goalie Kaapo Kahkonen stopped the puck behind the net, but Patrick Kane pressured him from the weak side, forcing him to pass to defenseman Radim Simek in the strong-side corner — right in line with Kurashev’s forecheck. Kurashev hit Simek, forced a turnover and passed to Kane down low. Kane dished the puck to MacKenzie Entwistle cruising into the slot.
Entwistle’s shot was blocked, but dozens of forechecks like that during the course of a game eventually would add up.
‘‘It becomes very annoying for other teams,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘Teams start to not [exactly] be leery of you but . . . [think] like: ‘Oh, we’re playing them tonight. They’re relentless. They never give up.’ That’s the presence we want to have and what we want to be known as our identity.’’
Richardson isn’t exaggerating about making a heavy forecheck a central part of the Hawks’ identity. When forward Jason Dickinson joined the team last week, for example, forechecking was the first thing the coaching staff talked to him about.
And more time together will help the Hawks memorize teammates’ tendencies, familiarize themselves more with Richardson’s lessons and improve the forecheck further.
‘‘Good teams don’t really make reads,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘They just react, and they always know where everyone is. Early on in the year, it’s tough to be like that. But as the year goes on, you should be able to get the puck and literally have your eyes closed and know where the other four guys on the ice are going to be. That’s just timing.
‘‘Once you get that, that’s what makes teams look like they play really fast.’’
NOTE: Defenseman Jake McCabe has been cleared to return from cervical spine surgery and likely will make his season debut Friday. The Hawks sent Alex Vlasic to Rockford on Tuesday but still have eight defensemen on the active roster.