Welcome to the Derek King era?
OK, it’s premature to say the Chicago Blackhawks interim coach has engineered a complete turnaround after the Hawks won consecutive games for the first time this season.
Truth be told, even before Tuesday night’s 3-2 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Hawks were showing signs of piecing together a competent game.
The Hawks jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Penguins but fell apart defensively in the third period, allowing the Pens to send it to overtime and then the shootout.
Jonathan Toews scored against Tristan Jarry on the first attempt of the shootout, and after Hawks goalie Marc-André Fleury stopped Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang, Alex DeBrincat bagged his second straight game-winner.
“Listen, it’s two wins,” King said. “There’s some cleaning up to do, obviously. But at least the battle level is there, the accountability is there, and you can see these guys are actually playing for each other.”
“Winning makes everything better,” said defenseman Seth Jones, who scored first goal of the season. “But it comes at a price and that’s hard work. I think we’ve started doing the little things ... in the defensive zone, blocking more shots, winning more puck battles to create battles in the neutral zone. And once we’re in the offensive zone it’s easy. You can be creative.
“But you have to put the work in the other two zones first, and I think that’s what’s making us successful these last couple of games.”
So why didn’t the Hawks do this before?
“Couldn’t tell ya. I couldn’t tell ya,” Jones said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. What has changed in the last two wins?
It starts with defense.
Against the Nashville Predators, the Hawks kept the shots outside and prevented quality shots. The Penguins did a much better job than the Predators getting looks from the front, but the Hawks limited the damage to two goals.
But the Hawks also didn’t give the Pens the kind of transition opportunities that plagued the Hawks earlier.
And credit the forwards for playing their part.
Said Jones: “(The Penguins) forechecked pretty hard tonight, they come too hard, that third guy’s close, so we bypass a lot with the rims and then it’s up to that winger and the winger did a great job tonight of winning those battles, just putting it behind and then our center comes through, beats their guy and (then) we have 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s.
“I thought our wingers did a great job tonight of that.”
Fleury credited the team for not giving up as many breakaways and odd-man rushes.
“Guys are making a big effort and coming in the neutral zone, the forwards coming back and pushing the puck, helping in D-zone,” he said. “Because of that we’re giving up less quality chances. Definitely helps me relax.”
2. The defensemen made sacrifices.
Forward Jujhar Khaira said one key to the win was “guys laying down to block shots and making smart plays when they had too.”
The Hawks blocked 21 shots to the Penguins’ 8, but two defensive contributions stood out.
Jones played 31 minutes, 24 seconds, including time on the power play and penalty kill.
“I feel fine, I feel fine,” he said. “It’s kind of weird minutes right now where we’re not running six a lot, so me and Murph (Connor Murphy) are double shifting quite a bit.”
Calvin de Haan took hard shots on two blocks and was slow getting off ice after the second.
“That’s what I said to him after the second: ‘Great blocked shots,’” King said. “All in that one shift, he had about six. And I said, ‘That’s the most I’ve had in my whole career.’”
That’s hyperbole from King — de Haan was credited with a game-high four blocks — but the image of de Haan hobbling off after a crucial block makes the greater point.
“That’s part of it, right? They’re sacrificing themselves for the good of the team,” King said. “But you can just see the guys on the bench getting up, banging the boards, and hobbling off and helping him off the ice and helping him into the locker room.
“It’s just good to see.”
3. Could Derek King star as Walter White in ‘Breaking Blackhawks?’
King made some quick impressions on the hockey world — celebrity impressions.
First, one answer at his first news conference as interim Blackhawks coach seemed as if he was channeling Ted Lasso, the fictional fish-out-water soccer coach who spins folksy yarns subtly laden with wisdom.
“I try to keep things light. I don’t take it too serious,” King said when asked about his personality. “Even as a player, I tried not to get myself worked up too much. Maybe that was a bad thing once in a while, but I want these guys to feel relaxed. They’re tight. My personality is going to come in and just let them just take a deep breath and get your shoulders dropped and go have some fun and get back to the game we love to play.
“We’ve played it since we were 5, 6 years old, and it hasn’t changed. You might be making a little more money now, but it’s just time to go back to playing some good, solid, hard hockey and have some fun with it.”
Or then there was this: “I’ve had people ask me about my style. I don’t think I have a style. I just get a feel for the game, feel for the players and I just go with that.”
Yet, when fans look at the bald 54-year-old, they associate him with a less cuddly character: “Breaking Bad” teacher-turned-druglord Walter White.
During a family dinner, King’s twin boys, who’ll be 14 later this month, hipped him to what’s going on because “they have their phones on all the time, it’s all this Instagram.”
“I don’t know, somebody mentioned that somebody put up something like I’m Ted Lasso and then they had the guy from ‘Breaking Bad,’ my face, and they think it’s funny,” King said. “They’re showing me and I just want to eat and talk to your mom.
“I’ve had the ‘Breaking Bad’ thing before, I might have to try to grow my hair back to change that image. The Ted Lasso thing was pretty good. It was pretty funny.”
Here is more game coverage.
The Chicago Blackhawks won a second straight game for the first time this season, with two Hawks scoring their first goals of the season and Alex DeBrincat securing the 3-2 shootout win against the Pittsburgh Penguins with the decisive score Tuesday night at the United Center.
The Hawks let the Penguins come back from a 2-0 deficit with two goals in the third, and Penguins almost won in regulation, but Pierre-Olivier Joseph shot high with 2 seconds left.
Patrick Kane almost repeated his heroics of Sunday’s overtime win against the Nashville Predators, in which he set up DeBrincat for the game-winner.
In overtime Tuesday, he and DeBrincat had another two-man rush going, but Tristan Jarry denied Kane’s shot. Kane had another chance to seal it as overtime expired, but he shot wide with a second left.
In the shootout, Jonathan Toews set the table by scoring first, then DeBrincat finished it off with his second straight game-winner.
“There’s a lot of stuff we can clean up, for sure,” said Derek King, who’s now 2-0 as interim head coach. “We get a lead like that, we’re cruising along, cruising along, it’s that sitting back and just hoping we can weather the storm and get the win and get out of here. We need to learn how to play with a lead and then not sit back — let’s go get the third goal, let’s go get the fourth goal.
“All the things we did in the first and second, we’ve got to play that in the third. This is what’s going to separate us from a team that struggles or a team that’s comfortable playing with the lead.”
Two Hawks got their first goals, and both came in the second period.
Jujhar Khaira typically grinds on the fourth line, but he made the most of sharing a line with Toews and Dominik Kubalík, scooping in Toews’ backdoor pass after Kubalík rimmed a pass to Toews behind the net.
With 4 minutes left in the second period, Seth Jones sniped a goal over Jarry’s shoulder and off the post. Kane and DeBrincat assisted on Jones’ first goal as a Hawk.
“It feels nice. I’ve shot the puck a lot this year and it hasn’t gone in and I just told myself, keep shooting, keep shooting,” he said. “Hopefully one went in and it did tonight. that was a great screen by Kirby to take the goalie’s eyes away and just tried to throw it in there.”
Marc-André Fleury was having a great night against his former team until the Hawks let their defense lag to open the third period.
The Penguins took the first five shots and Jeff Carter finally made the Hawks pay on the sixth, tipping in Jake Guentzel’s pass 5:34 into the third.
Carter scored again 10 minutes later on another Guentzel helper.
Still, the Hawks have yet to trail in the two games since Derek King took over as interim coach.
That’s a far cry from how the Hawks started the season. They set an NHL standard for futility by not holding a lead for the first 366 minutes and 41 seconds.
Fleury had 42 saves and avenged his nightmarish return to Pittsburgh, when he gave up four goals in the first period to his old team and was pulled.
“Happy to get the nod and get a crack at them again,” he said. “It was frustrating last time and embarrassing a bit for me.”
It wasn’t just redemption for him.
“It was definitely a frustrating start to the season and I’m glad the last two games feel better,” Fleury said. “And we’re going to keep building on that and try to put on a good show at home” against the Arizona Coyotes Friday.