Every 10 games I’ll give you an assessment of where the Chicago Blackhawks stand.
If you’ve been watching football for the past few months, it’s time to catch up with the defending Stanley Cup champions. At 26-20-4 they are no lock for the playoffs. With 50 games in the books and the All-Star break upon us, here are 10 things to know about the first 50 games:
10. Grit: The Hawks were interested in bringing back Ben Eager and for good reason. It’s not that they miss grit in every shift of every game, but there are moments where it could help turn the momentum. Game 49 against Philadelphia is a good example. The Hawks got passive, playing a perimeter game. A few good fourth-line shifts with guys crashing the net could have set the tone for a grittier second half, but it never came. Jack Skille tries to be that type of player, but he’s not there yet. Jake Dowell, Bryan Bickell, and even Fernando Pisani could step it up in this regard. Tomas Kopecky is a good example of a player who plays with an edge most of the time, but he’s a top-6 forward. They need his attitude on the lower lines.
9. Leadership: It’s being tested. Last year there were more than enough leaders, mostly because there were more than enough players having great seasons, which allowed them to stand up and make others accountable. This season, with stars struggling themselves, it’s a different dynamic. Jonathan Toews keeps the ship moving in the right direction, but he’s more on an island than a year ago. With Patrick Sharp the lone core player having a great season, his leadership is needed more than ever. Defensively, it’s hard to know if everyone is on the same page or if individuals are pressing to try and return to their high caliber of play.
8. Power play: As in most other 10-game assessments this season the power play get an A+ grade for keeping the Hawks in the playoff hunt. They are ranked No. 1 in the NHL, converting at about a 25 percent clip. That’s excellent. Patrick Kane has the uncanny ability to find Sharp over and over again on the far side of the play, leaving Sharp with near open-nets. Sharp is tied for second in the NHL with 11 power-play goals. The first unit continues to shine. If Stan Bowman makes a trade for a defenseman hopefully he can help an average second unit. The more goals the Hawks get with the man advantage the less pressure there will be elsewhere. It continues to be a key as it has all season.
7. The Hoss: Where is he? And I’m not just taking a jab at his propensity to miss games --think how many he’ll be playing in a decade from now. Where is the dominant Marian Hossa we saw for the first 11 games? Yes, even on his worst days he’s still better than most. But better isn’t dominant, and as part of the core, he simply needs to produce more. Twenty-seven points in 34 games is fairly pedestrian, especially when you consider Bryan Bickell has 26 points. Yes, Bickell has played more games, but the point still stands: Hossa has been more ordinary than extraordinary, and that’s not going to cut it. He’s averaging three shots per game with less team depth and more ice time than a year ago. That number needs to increase. And his 10 percent shooting percentage is a far cry from the league leaders. After each of his injuries, he has said his timing is off, but by the time it returns, he’s out of the lineup again. Hossa needs a big finish.
6. Duncan Keith: Like the Hawks, every step Keith takes forward is followed by at least one back. He is definitely playing more consistent than earlier in the season, but let’s face it, that’s not saying much. Has the league figured him out? They’ve certainly figured out his shot. It gets blocked more than any Hawk. He has three goals after netting 14 last season. The league doesn’t keep cumulative stats on attempts blocked, but we don’t have to add up every box score to make the point: Everything that worked for Keith a year ago is seemingly working against him this season. Fatigue continues to be a factor as Joel Quenneville rode him early, but a new contract and "Norris Trophy" in front of his name undoubtedly put the pressure on him. No player in the NHL could use a weekend away from the game more than Keith, but instead he will have to answer questions about his game -- and his minus-4 -- in Raleigh, at All-Star weekend.
5. Third-period woes: Anyone who has watched the Blackhawks knows they have had a disturbing trend of giving up close games in the final period. Bad teams will give up goals at all different times so this trend would be meaningless if the Hawks were in that category. But as a defending champ, trying to return to prominence, the amount of goals they have allowed in crunch time is baffling and scary. For much of this season the Hawks have led the NHL in goals allowed in the third period. As of Thursday, they rank second in that department by one goal. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team since the 1988-1989 Los Angeles Kings has made the playoffs while leading the NHL in third-period goals-against. The Hawks better hope they tighten things up or buck a 20-plus year trend.
4. Unclutch time: Along the lines of the third-period woes is the lack of clutch play, especially from the Hawks’ key stars. They have now lost 13 games in regulation after being tied at some point in the third period. A telling stat is goal differential. The Hawks are plus-18 on the season -- that’s third best in the conference -- yet they languish at the playoff cusp. The goals they have given up have been untimely. Whether it’s been late in the game or when a needed penalty kill failed, they have not shown the type of a veteran know-how a team with their experience should have. This was a problem early in the year, and it continues to be a factor. Mental fatigue must play a factor as there is no other explanation.
3. Goaltending: Without a doubt Corey Crawford has had a very good season to this point, but there have been some cracks lately. Pucks are getting by him that weren’t before. More than likely it’s a slump, but with all the pressure squarely on his shoulders, it wouldn’t hurt if the Hawks could put up a couple of five- or six-goal performances, or Marty Turco could show signs of getting hot himself, when he gets back in there. The way the Hawks are playing -- and Turco to this point -- if Crawford takes a rookie step back, the season is essentially over.
2. The schedule: Much is already being made of the Hawks remaining 32 games. Just 12 are at the United Center. And that’s a bad thing, why? The Hawks are just 16-13 at home, 10-7-4 on the road. Their problem isn’t where they play, it's how they’re playing. They do have to do some surviving before they can probably go on a run -- if they have it in them. The “second half” opens with six road games in four different time zones. Having said that, plenty of teams (Hawks last year, Dallas this season) have extended winning streaks on the road. If the Hawks play up to capabilities, why can’t it happen for them? Don’t let the schedule scare you more than the inconsistent way they are playing.
1. How to improve: One of the last things Quenneville said to the press about his team before the All-Star break was telling: “I think when we play a fast, speed game, we’re much better. When we slow down and look for plays, I think we become victimized by the other teams being patient.” Guys like Kane and Viktor Stalberg need to take heed. Take that puck to the net, not to the perimeter. Kane is great at finding the trailer, but it’s not always there. Sometimes crashing the net with the puck creates chaos, and chaos creates chances. The Hawks do it in spurts, but not enough. The waves of offense we used to see come more sporadically now, and that gives the opposition a chance to grab the momentum.