Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton sees vision materializing in strong stretch

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DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 20: Alex DeBrincat #12 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks after scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars in the first period at American Airlines Center on December 20, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775220820

DENVER — Acclimation goes both ways when there’s a coaching change, and the Blackhawks are finally finding a groove with Jeremy Colliton.

He got off to a rough start as a 33-year-old first-time head coach, and it still isn’t perfectly smooth. But it looks better. It had to get better after going 3-12-2 his first month on the job.

“The issues that prevent you from winning are the same here as they are at the other levels,” said Colliton, who led the AHL affiliate in Rockford and spent four seasons coaching in Sweden. “Obviously the skill level is higher, the speed of the game is quicker, but the things that help you win don’t seem to change.”

He sought to implement several priorities when he took over the Hawks, and two of his biggest tasks have been establishing the right line configurations and ramping up the pace.

Colliton’s philosophy on lines is that the Hawks have a top nine rather than a top six when it comes to forwards. That’s why he didn’t think of it as a demotion when he shifted Alex DeBrincat from the second line to the third for Thursday’s 5-2 win over Dallas.

He replaced DeBrincat with Artem Anisimov to play on the second line with Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome in that game. DeBrincat was with David Kampf and Dylan Sikura. Colliton stuck with those trios for Friday’s game at Colorado.

The new crew of Kane, Anisimov and Strome did fine. Anisimov assisted Kane’s second-period goal to give the Hawks a 3-0 lead, but that trio was also on the ice when the Stars got their first goal.

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“I thought we played pretty well,” Kane said. “We had the puck. We were doing the right things defensively.”

Kampf, Sikura and DeBrincat were good, too, and orchestrated a textbook play off a draw that ended with DeBrincat putting a wrist shot in the net.

Colliton believes the best teams have three good lines, and he aims to keep the offense firing by separating his top three scorers. Kane leads the Hawks with 42 points, followed by Toews at 31 and DeBrincat at 29.

Even if these lines work, Colliton reserves the right to keep mixing.

“You want to build chemistry, but I’d like to have everyone comfortable playing with everyone,” he said. “We have some continuity with our style, and that allows you to be flexible with trying to switch the combos to get some momentum, or maybe it’s a matchup you want or don’t want.”

As far as pace, it intertwines with what Colliton wants defensively. He’s trying to kick the Hawks into attack mode quicker and use their speed to set up scoring opportunities.

He’d rather see that than long possessions with several passes, each carrying the risk of a turnover. Racing up the ice also increases the odds of catching the opposing defense out of position.

“I think in past years we were more of a puck-possession team, always trying to make tape-to-tape passes,” Kane said. “Sometimes we’re better off with just getting the puck advanced and trying to skate into pucks and use our speed and try to create turnovers, win some more battles, get that into our game a little bit.

“You can kind of create off that. It’s a little bit different style, but it’s been working for us lately, so we’ve kinda got the recipe now for how we can be successful.”

Colliton’s seen that vision materialize over the past few weeks, minus an occasional ugly game, and the results have turned in the Hawks’ favor lately. They put together a 3-1-1 run despite facing a string of playoff contenders, giving them a much-needed spark of confidence after enduring an eight-game losing streak.

“We’re still learning as we go here and still trying to implement new things,” Kane said, “but I think it’s starting to come around a little bit.”

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