Chicago Blackhawks’ Powerplay, Defense Should Get Vegas Tinkering

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jordan Oesterle (82) follows through on a shot during the NHL hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes on October 21, 2017 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 21: Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Jordan Oesterle (82) follows through on a shot during the NHL hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes on October 21, 2017 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Chicago Blackhawks are facing an obviously overachieving Vegas Golden Knights team for the first time ever tonight, which gives the visitors a great chance to work on some areas of concern

The Vegas Golden Knights have been the feel-good story early this NHL season, and the Chicago Blackhawks will visit them for the first-ever time tonight. While the Knights have an impressive 12 points in their first seven games, it’s clear this is unsustainable.

For the first couple reasons why, I turn to Faxes From Uncle Dale:

"Vegas has gotten off to a pretty ridiculous start to the season, considering that in the categories that really try and pry out the truth they’ve been getting clocked most nights. Their CF% is 25th in the league and their xGF% is 30th, and yet here they are only having lost one game. Though that’s a little skewed, as half their wins have come in overtime which we know is basically a coin-flip. But hey, they got to overtime, or something.The schedule hasn’t hurt either, as they’ve gotten to play dogs**t teams like the Coyotes twice, the Wings, the Sabres, and the Bruins on the second of a back-to-back. They’ve also had five home games against just two on the road, but hit the planes and buses next week which should start to even them out a bit, you would think. At least they’ll be wearing those oh-so-sharp white gloves, though."

So they’re not possessing the puck terribly well, but still far outscoring what you’d expect them to be doing on offense. That, paired with a pretty soft slate to open the season, would be reason enough to say Vegas will experience some regression very soon.

But then they were tossed a little bad luck as well. Marc-Andre Fleury is out with a concussion, and Malcolm Subban was put on injured reserve on Sunday with a lower-body injury. The Knights had Calvin Pickard before the season started, but he’s since been dumped.

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That means Oscar Dansk is the starter right now. Dansk, 23, made his NHL debut in relief of Subban against St. Louis three days ago, picking up a win for stopping 10 of 11 shots. That’s all of his NHL experience to this point, and the Knights were receiving a .936 save percentage from Subban and a .925 mark from Fleury — as unsustainable as the team’s offense.

So what does all of this have to do with the Blackhawks tonight?

Improving the powerplay

The Knights are still an NHL team, no doubt. They technically have a 50-50 chance of winning each game they play. But they’re an inferior team to the Blackhawks, regardless of what the stats say.

Still, the Blackhawks have some things to work on as well — namely their powerplay and defense. And though they’ll be at the disadvantage of playing on the road, and getting last change, the Blackhawks really should be able to post a win as long as they pay attention for the entire game.

Paying attention and working through some on-ice issues can go hand in hand, and really should go hand in hand. If the Blackhawks are just floating around the ice, like we’ve seen them do in some games already this season, while they’re trying to improve in key areas, they’re definitely not going to get better.

On the powerplay front, I turn to Blackhawk Up’s Steve Yatsushiro for areas of improvement, which he commented upon after a loss to Edmonton last week:

"There were signs of improvement as zone entries were more direct, with less of the pusher-back option. But once again, there was a lot of standing around, as the puck carrier did not play a 2-on-1 game with the defender to force breakdowns in coverage. The hybrid powerplay structure depends upon getting shots through from the blue line, but Edmonton managed to block a majority of those shots.  The point men need to make better decisions with the puck.  The worst case came with Brent Seabrook simply dumping the puck into a vacant area, resulting in a mad scramble and the wasting of 20 seconds."

I’m still not sold on the Blackhawks’ zone entries being good enough, and the team seems adamant on getting most of its powerplay shots off from the point, instead of moving the puck lower and trying from there.

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These are two things the Blackhawks can seriously focus on tonight against an inferior opponent. We’re talking about a team that has seven regular-season games and a training camp together when it comes to working on the penalty kill. Most of the Blackhawks who compete on the powerplay have done so together for years (although it clearly doesn’t show in many games).

Improving the defense

On a different note, the Blackhawks can experiment with different defensive pairings. The Blackhawks are giving up a ton of shots on net so far, with Corey Crawford facing an average of 33.6 shots per game. Tinkering with defensive pairings won’t completely cure that, but it can hardly get worse.

The Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook reunion clearly isn’t working, as both guys are getting burned quite frequently by opposing forwards. Meanwhile, Jan Rutta has looked really solid on the blue line. Maybe it’s time to try a longer run of Keith-Rutta for a game. This would be the game for that.

The Blackhawks seem to be hinting toward trying something different tonight even before the puck drops, as Jordan Oesterle is reportedly slotting in for Michal Kempny.

Next: Anisimov Needs To Step Up On Third Line

I wouldn’t pretend to have all the answers to this team’s defensive woes, but it’s games like this — against an extremely beatable team — when the Blackhawks need to actively experiment in areas they’ve struggled.