- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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What’s wrong with the Chicago Blackhawks?
It’s a question being asked around town after yet another home loss -- their fifth of the year -- to the lowly New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.
Every opponent has to be respected but a team that is 3-9-1, at the end of a long road trip, and just lost its best player to injury, should be ripe for the taking. The way to assure a win is to get to them early and demoralize them.
The Hawks did the exact opposite.
Sleepy only begins to describe the first period the Hawks played Wednesday. Yes, they fought back to tie the game, but it shouldn’t be that way.
They’ve done too much fighting back already.
In only two games this season the Hawks have looked like Stanley Cup Champions. Two. And both came on the road. A 5-2 win in Columbus in October and then the Hawks played their best game in a 3-1 defeat of Minnesota on Saturday.
But let’s not get caught up in home and road analysis. The NHL isn’t like most leagues; teams can win on the road. The New York Rangers, before they beat the Hawks, were 1-3-1 at home and 4-1 on the road. It happens. What’s more important is why the Hawks are just a .500 team after 15 games, no matter where the wins and losses are occurring.
To answer that, take a look at one player in particular: The captain.
Wednesday night was one of the worst games he’s had in quite some time. He’s still winning faceoffs, but that’s about all he is doing. He’s not winning one-on-one battles, and he’s mysteriously fighting the puck like a fourth-liner. Kane has been at least a little better at the things he does best. Toews isn’t excelling at his strengths, and that seems to be a microcosm of the Hawks season.
Puck possession has been slow to come by. Team defense has been shaky at best. Those were the major strengths last year.
So offensively, other than Patrick Sharp and the start Marian Hossa had before suffering an injury, the Hawks’ stars have not played like stars. Yes, they miss the depth of a year ago -- though Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille have had their moments. And on defense so has Nick Boynton and even Jassen Cullimore.
Make no mistake, all of those players have also had their down sequences, but that was expected. Inconsistent play from Toews, Kane, Dave Bolland, and others, can’t be tolerated. Last year, Kane was the Hawks' best player on the ice many nights in the first half of the season. The same can’t be said this year. The good news in regards to Toews and Kane, is both players -- especially Toews -- are self-motivated and self-critical. No one is going to be harder on No. 19 than he is. A case can be made that he is pressing, but he’s too good and too professional to let it go on for long.
Expect those stars to come around. If they do, it should affect more than just the offense. The elephant in the room regarding team defense is simply, they may not be that good in their own zone.
In the playoffs last season, the Hawks were exposed a little when the puck was stuck in their own end. Philadelphia had them scrambling in a couple of games in the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Hawks' puck possession game ultimately won out. Still, it wasn’t a good sign to see the shots on goal shoot up in the postseason.
Things have only gotten worse this year. In their 7-4 loss to Edmonton a week ago, the Hawks were beat off the rush but most other goals given up, which have subsequently led to many losses, have occurred because the Hawks are not grasping what needs to happen in their own end. All the New York Rangers’ goals on Monday came from the Rangers' forecheck and plays around Marty Turco. Same for the non empty-net goals on Wednesday against New Jersey. Go back and watch the highlights. It’s all happening right around the net and a lot of it is originating from behind it.
And it’s just not the last couple of losses. Several game-winning goals by the opponent this year have occurred in the same manner. Just little plays in front where the Hawks have missed coverage, turned over the puck, or both. Turco should be expected to bail his defense out some of the time, but the Hawks are simply allowing too much time and space near “the house” as Joel Quenneville put it after Wednesday’s loss.
What’s the answer?
Well, first and foremost, 15 games is still way too little time to fully judge a team -- especially one coming off a Stanley Cup win. Give it to about 30 games before full-blown panic sets in. Secondly, the Hawks simply can’t rely on the same things they did a year ago. If their shot differential is going to look more ordinary this year, than they have to buckle down in their own zone. Puck possession was more about the talent and depth, but team defense is teachable and takes awareness and commitment.
Someone needs to lead the way to improve on these things as a team. The captain would be a good start.