Three Stars: Saad Stellar as Hawks Knock Off Flames

Their offense came out sluggish and their defense surrendered a gorgeous goal to Jiri Hudler, but the Chicago Blackhawks bounced back and were able to use some quality puck movement of their own to knock off the Calgary Flames on Sunday night at the United Center.

The win was the Blackhawks’ ninth in 10 games and 12th in their last 14, and it showed that even though they’ve been playing through one of their most difficult stretches of the season, the team can still flip the switch when necessary.

For more on the victory, here were our Three Stars of the game.

Third Star: Antti Raanta

Being the back-up goaltender behind a hot netminder like Corey Crawford is one thing. Being stuck as the back-up behind a rookie with scant NHL experience is quite another, but that’s what Antti Raanta has had to deal with in recent weeks as he served as the back-up to Scott Darling for the Blackhawks.

On Sunday night, Raanta showed that even though he hasn’t gotten many chances to prove his mettle lately, he’s still got what it takes to make this back-up goaltender job a competition. He only made 22 saves in the game, but the way he maintained his rebound control throughout the game, he definitely looked sharp.

One sequence where that stood out came in the second period as the Flames were on a power play. With Joe Colborne providing traffic in front of the net, Raanta had to fight through a screen early in the man-advantage situation and absorbed a bouncing shot from the point off the stick of Mark Giordano. A little bit later on, TJ Brodie fired in a shot from the blue line that went through some serious traffic, but Raanta again vacuumed in the shot and didn’t concede a rebound with several Flames players lurking.

Those two shots could have easily yielded rebounds, especially with a cold goaltender in net. Raanta rose to the occasion however, and he did a great job overall on Sunday of limiting Calgary’s offensive chances.

Second Star: Jonathan Toews

The Blackhawks’ captain has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the past several days, but on Sunday he vaulted himself back into the spotlight for the right reasons as the Hawks won.

The Hawks’ power play has been struggling in recent weeks, but thanks to a smart move by Toews, they were able to score less than 10 seconds into their first power play. After Toews won the face-off to get the man-advantage started, he slowly worked his way through the slot and eventually below the goal line. Patrick Kane saw the play developing, and he carefully carried the puck before tossing a pass down low. The Flames’ defense over-rotated to counter the move by Toews, and Patrick Sharp took advantage as he pinched in from the point.

Toews watched Sharp’s move, and quickly fired a pass back across the front of the goal. Sharp buried the ensuing shot, and in the blink of an eye the game was tied up at 1-1.

When fans see coaches diagramming plays on the bench in an NHL game, that’s the kind of thing that’s being devised. Forcing a team to over-rotate on defense can open up a myriad of lanes to pass through, and that’s exactly what Toews and the Hawks baited the Flames into doing on that play.

First Star: Brandon Saad

Saad was a dominant force for the Blackhawks on Sunday, using his speed to help the first line establish lengthy possessions and using his eye for open ice to jump onto a 2-on-0 breakaway with Toews to set up the game-winning goal with about seven minutes left in the game.

Even though that goal will be the one immortalized in the scoresheet from the game, it was Saad’s play on a penalty kill earlier in the period that stood out even more. With the Flames threatening to take the lead back thanks to a Johnny Oduya penalty, the Hawks’ forwards got particularly aggressive on the forecheck, preventing Calgary from getting zone entry at the blue line.

For Saad, that wasn’t good enough. He eventually stole the puck, and he skated down ice into the Calgary zone. While there, he fought off several poke-check and body-check attempts, killing almost 30 seconds off of the man-advantage just by holding onto the puck. Eventually Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa came to help him out, and they proceeded to play keep away for even longer.

The Hawks’ penalty killing unit is arguably the best in the league because of the dynamic play of the forwards involved, and Saad is in that conversation as the best of the bunch. Even on nights where he isn’t scoring, he constantly is bringing the heat offensively, and Sunday provided yet another example of that dominance.

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