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Season in review: A complicated follow-up

In the end, assessing the 2010-2011 Chicago Blackhawks is all about perspective. Is your glass half-full or half-empty? Judging a season, which comes up short the year after a championship, is difficult. Who can realistically expect a repeat? Doing it with these Hawks is that much harder.

If they had returned the same team that won the Stanley Cup, then lollygagged through the regular season only to turn it on too late, it would be much easier to criticize them. If below average individual performances weren’t mostly due to mental and/or physical fatigue from the year before, it would be easy to point fingers.

But the issues with the Hawks were more nuanced than just one or two obvious things. That goes for the regular season, the playoffs and the players.

The only part of luck or fortune which plays a real part (other than catastrophic injuries) in a team’s season is the schedule. There is absolutely no argument about it: The schedule killed the Hawks' first-half hopes. It was brutal for a team coming off a non-playoff year let alone one which played (and subsequently partied) until mid-June. In his most honest moments coach Joel Quenneville will point to it being a factor as he already intimated after Game 7 in Vancouver.

“The start we had, it was relentless,” Quenneville said.

He won’t say anything much stronger than so he doesn’t come off as whining, but the facts are the facts.

The Hawks were way ahead of the pack in games played for the first half of the year and were hitting the road, and then returning home, seemingly every other day. It provided no chance for practice, chemistry or consistency.

Additionally, when Brian Campbell was unable to start the season because of a knee injury, it put Quenneville in a bind. Should he play his top defenseman more minutes or risk games by playing less talented players instead?

He chose the former, but it backfired. The minutes piled up, for Duncan Keith in particular, and his play suffered. Games were risked and the minutes accumulated.

After hearing Keith’s mea culpa about his season, after his brilliant performance in Game 4 of the playoffs, it

brings to light a small but important criticism of the coaching staff. If Keith wasn’t “into” the start of the year and didn’t prepare for the season the right way, why didn’t the coaches see this? And if they did why was he on the ice so much? Maybe they were in a no-win situation but playing Keith as much as they did was a mistake from the word go.

Once it was obvious the short summer and early schedule were a factor, it simply became about making the playoffs. The Hawks showed heart and new-found chemistry when they embarked on their eight game March winning streak to put themselves in position for a top 8 seed. There’s no doubt they floundered down the stretch but just one more win gets them to the postseason easier and with a much higher seed. The Western Conference was that tight.

But they made it nonetheless, and 97 points isn’t anything to be embarrassed about. If you want to criticize them for “backing in” just think what could be said if you’re a Dallas Stars fan. As Keith said at the time, “We have two more points than them so we deserve to be in.” He was more right than wrong.

That brings us to the postseason. Forgetting the final outcome, it was a marvelous, unpredictable, nail-biting first round series with an arch-rival. The momentum swings were gigantic.

But the Hawks put themselves in a position to allow a game of inches to come down to those inches. They had no margin for error after dropping the first three games of the series against Vancouver and neither did the Canucks in the end. So it came down to Patrick Sharp’s chance on the power play followed by Alex Burrows and his opportunity. We know who won the game of inches there.

But it’s hard to understand, as Quenneville put it himself, why the Hawks got emotionally invested in the series so late. The first 10 minutes of Game 1 was understandable. The Canucks were out for blood, for obvious reasons, and the Hawks employ enough playoff rookies that the combination was bound to affect them. The next 170 minutes the Hawks played decent enough, if it were mid-season, but not for spring hockey.

Then Brent Seabrook got hit by Raffi Torres and the Hawks woke up. Dave Bolland’s return didn’t hurt either. And no one will know for sure if the outcome is different if Bolland plays the entire series. But if the Hawks could have at least played Games 2 and 3 like they did 6 or 7 they may have won one more. Games 4 and 5 were easy. They dominated. But gutting out one more win -- like they did in Game 6 and nearly in Game 7 -- was needed. It should have come earlier than the 3-0 hole.

Listening to the players after the game, the Cup “feeling” is truly over now. They are like any other team which exited in the first round. They put up a fight in crucial moments in the first 82 games and then in the final four, but it wasn’t enough.

A taste of losing early, while enjoying a long, restful summer might be all the Hawks need for a major resurgence in 2011-2012. While it may have felt they were far from being an elite team, the final four games must have some meaning. Ask the Canucks. That sigh of relief coming from British Columbia wasn’t just because they won a lousy first round series.

The Canucks beat a team with talent and heart even if they didn’t always show it in the 2010-2011 NHL campaign.