Blackhawks observations: More lessons learned in loss to Lightning

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CHICAGO — Lessons upon lessons upon lessons.

The Blackhawks knew it’d be a season full of them entering the year, with so many young and inexperienced players, and that’s played out as expected.

And Thursday provided another game full of them as the Blackhawks lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, and were outshot 29-15 at the United Center.

There were the defensive zone lessons.

“We had our inside structure, but anytime there was a shot, it seemed like they were quicker to the puck and they had an out quicker,” Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said. “When it goes low to high, I think it was a combination of not hitting and pinning down low early enough to let them do it, and we weren’t quick enough to get out to the point, so they got a lot of point shots through, which resulted in two goals tonight, for sure, and that just gets you running around.

“A little bit standing, watching. Sometimes that happens when the other team is kind of spinning around and you got (Brayden) Point (and Nikita) Kucherov very strong on the puck and they were finding each other. I think we were just on our heels a little bit. When you’re on your heels, you’re never going to get the puck back. It was a good lesson from a good team.”

There was a lesson given on the Lightning’s game-winning goal.

“I think we actually had it at one point in the corner, and that was one of those ones I think we have to be comfortable of keep hemming that puck in the corner in that pile, like a rugby scrum, and not kick it out,” Richardson said. “Because when we kicked it out, then it goes to them and it went low to high and then they got a point shot, which the rebound came right back to them to an open net.

“I think we got to make sure that we’re comfortable in those situations and get comfortable with it until you draw them in and maybe you kick it back to the weak side, and we have a little more room to make plays and get it out or just making sure we can airmail it like to the far end of the neutral zone to get a change so we get fresh guys on. I think we got tired and you have world-class players out there controlling the play. We’re not going to fair very well with that.”

There was just the overall lesson of playing an experienced team like the Lightning.

“They’re a good team,” Blackhawks forward Corey Perry said. “I mean, when they get the lead, they kind of sit on it and play strong and there’s not much room out there. Those are learning curves that we can build along the way.”

The reality is, the Blackhawks can’t afford to have two players like Taylor Hall and Andreas Athanasiou out of the lineup at the same time. They’re just not a deep enough team.

The Blackhawks have been having less and less of the puck in recent weeks. In their last five games, their Corsi percentages have been 35.35, 42.59, 40.28, 36.96 and 32.50. Their 31.42 expected goals percentage Thursday was their second-lowest of the season.

Lukas Reichel needed a goal more than any Blackhawks player. And when he finally got one on Thursday, he didn’t even know it.

After he deflected Philipp Kurashev’s shot from the high slot on the power play in the first period, Reichel was pretty sure Perry got a second stick on it in front of the net. Moments later, though, he discovered his first goal of the season.

“I didn’t even know that I scored,” Reichel said. “I thought Perry had a stick on it, so I didn’t even know. But then I was like, ‘Yeah, f—ing right.’”

Reichel’s profanity can be forgiven considering his season-long slump. Despite the goal, Richardson said he’d like Reichel to still be more aggressive and not pass up on shots.

“I think last game before tonight was probably the game he had the puck the least and created probably the least in overall chances,” Richardson said. “But he’s been skating well and his defensive responsibility’s been pretty good. He just has to take charge on the offense a little more and shoot pucks and use his skill set there. But I think he seemed to look like he was, not relieved but excited, and you could see it in his game.”

Petr Mrazek prevented the game from looking a lot worse from the Blackhawks. From Anthony Cirelli’s short-handed breakaway to Point skating past Alex Vlasic right to the net in four-on-five play, Mrazek faced quality chance after chance on the night. It wasn’t so much the quantity, but the quality on this night. The Lightning had 37 scoring chances, including 18 high-danger opportunities, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Mrazek deserves some recognize for his play so far this season. Outside of Connor Bedard, he’s probably been the Blackhawks’ most valuable player. He has given the Blackahwks a chance in all of his starts. Thursday’s game was the first time he’s been in net for a loss this season. He’s 12th in the league with 0.55 goals saved above average per 60 minutes (minimum five starts).

“He’s been pretty tremendous, especially on our power play tonight,” Perry said. “They had two breakaways or a couple two-on-ones, and he saved them all for us. Those are things that we have to take on the bench and use that as momentum and we didn’t do that tonight.”

It was a quiet night for Bedard. Coming off consecutive two-goal games, he was held to just one shot on goal against the Lightning.

Bedard’s line spent most of the game in the defensive zone. With Bedard on the ice in five-on-play, the Lightning had a 19-7 advantage in shot attempts and 6-1 in shots on goal. Bedard was mostly on the ice against Kucherov, Point and Brandon Hagel.

(Photo: Jamie Sabau / USA Today)

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