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Remember way back at the beginning of the Blackhawks' season when fans were worried about the team's depth on defense, especially after the team traded away veteran blue-liner and ultra-shot-blocking tough guy Niklas Hjalmarsson?
Well, that is no longer a concern.
Not after Jordan Oesterle, languishing as the seventh defenseman on a team only playing six, started seeing ice time eight games ago.
He's been nothing but good (piling up an impressive plus-6 rating) and had his best game Sunday night as the Hawks made it six victories in a row with a 4-1 thrashing of the Minnesota Wild. If the season ended today, the Hawks would squeak into the playoffs as a wild card, something they weren't able to say for an uncomfortably long time.
Oh, and eighth defenseman Michal Kempny, who also sat out for a long stretch (13 games) before returning recently due to an injury to Jan Rutta? He fired in a valuable insurance goal late in the Hawks' win over Winnipeg last Thursday night, their most dominant and important win this season.
In that game, the Hawks displayed a fascinating strategy of late: taking non-physical hockey to the next level. They were credited with only two hits - to the Jets' 25 - in that game.
Now, Hawks play-by-play man Pat Foley posited during the broadcast last night that those numbers were not quite accurate and that some hometown Winnipeg scorekeeping came into play. But the bottom line is the Hawks hardly hit anyone in that game and still took home a much-needed 5-1 win.
I'm guessing what is really going on here is that the Hawks have enough skill that they have made a conscious decision to dial the physicality way back. And if they aren't initiating borderline checks, they are oftentimes avoiding the sorts of penalties that can set teams back in games against teams like the Jets with strong power plays.
Now if another team dials up the physical play, my guess is the Hawks will respond in kind. But that hasn't happened yet. You can bet it will at some point, especially in the playoffs. And isn't it nice to feel so much more comfortable saying something like that than you did two weeks ago, when the Hawks were outside of playoff position looking in.
It is amazing what a big ol' win streak can do.
As the Hawks have played well against good teams the past three games, Patrick Kane has led the way. It appears he is shooting more of late after spending a big chunk of last season finding new and delightful ways to set set up linemates Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov.
But this year he is playing with pass-first, and second and third, linemate Nick Schmaltz. And while Schmaltz needs to start shooting more at some point, for now Kane is always looking for a pass and has had a great stretch of putting it in the net.
Last night in the first period, Kane sent a cross-ice pass to Schmaltz a moment before both crossed the blue line. When Schmaltz found a way to send a pass right back, Kane had opened himself up and was perfectly prepared to blast a perfect one-timer for the Hawks' first lead.
Then in the second period, Oesterle made his sweet, almost 100-foot pass from his own end to Kane on a change just as he crossed the attacking blue line. Kane didn't miss, the Hawks had a well-deserved 2-0 lead, and they took it home from there.
The Blackhawks, in a wild card spot for now, are only four points behind Winnipeg for the third playoff spot in the division, take to the road for the rest of the calendar year.
They travel to Dallas on Thursday and New Jersey on Saturday before taking a nice, four-day break for Christmas. Then it is games at Vancouver and Edmonton before capping off the year in Calgary on New Years's Eve.
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