During this weekend's games -- a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers and a 5-2 loss to the Predators -- a lot of the Hawks’ good and bad play on the defensive end was on display.
When the Hawks are going well they limit their opponent’s shots on goal and stay out of their own zone. The latter point is more important than any. Now that might seem obvious and a cliché, but its especially true for this team. They simply don’t play well when the puck is in their own end for extended periods of time. Their defense isn’t built to push people out of the slot, nor do their forwards block enough shots coming from the point.
And to this juncture of the season, their goaltenders -- as solid as they’ve been at times -- haven’t stolen a full game, as evidenced by being the only team in the NHL that hasn’t recorded a shutout. In fact, how many true “goalie wins” have the Hawks had? That’s the term coach Joel Quenneville uses when either his team or the opponent gets outplayed but wins the game because the goalie “steals” it. Quenneville hasn’t used the phrase “goalie win” often this year about his own netminders.
But this defense is a team problem. When you rank near the bottom of the conference in goals allowed, as the Hawks do, all aspects of play need to be scrutinized. You want to know one of a few reasons the Hawks are ranked 27th on the penalty kill? Michael Frolik ranks just 70th among forwards in the NHL in blocked shots but leads the Hawks in that category. Defensive guru Dave Bolland ranks 94th in blocks. And do-everything captain Toews has blocked just 13 shots this season which is good for 247th among all forwards in the league.
Now before you start screaming at your computer, no one is advocating Toews to block more shots. He’s a star and needs to stay healthy. But the fact remains that on some nights the Hawks aren’t limiting their opponents the way they need to be. The way great defensive teams do. Blocking shots out near the point, exhibiting defensive awareness around the net and eking out a couple of “goalie wins” is something to look for as the Hawks march towards the spring.
The good news is they have played a tight, defensive game to gut out a win. They simply haven’t done it enough to feel comfortable. Just once have they won a game (2-1 over the Los Angeles Kings in November) in which they scored two goals or fewer.
Ironically, the Hawks’ best defensive effort was preceded by their worst and even more ironic was the fact they lost the game they played their best defense in. After a 9-2 drubbing in Edmonton during the circus trip, the Hawks buckled down, but fell to San Jose 1-0 the day after Thanksgiving. They swarmed in the defensive zone and limited the Sharks the way they needed to. But did they play stellar defense at the cost of their offense that night? Maybe. And does that mean in that in the games they commit to defense they’ll be limited on the other end? Again, it’s possible. And why haven’t they had more of those types of defensive efforts in general?
All of this leads to the playoffs. The Hawks might be able to play a single, spectacular defensive game -- as they did in San Jose -- but can they do it for an entire series if needed? Can Corey Crawford steal a playoff game, as every team that goes far into the postseason needs its goalie to do?
Maybe the Hawks offense will carry the day. Every team has flaws, and the Hawks are near the top of the conference in points even with their poor defensive statistics. But all teams want to be able to win in different ways, and right now it’s apparent that if the Hawks offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, they can be beaten badly.
Chicago has played 49 games. After Saturday’s loss to the Predators they are 14-8 in games decided by exactly three goals. That’s 22 games out of 49 decided by a three-goal margin. It’s a huge amount and speaks to their great offense as well as their very average defense.
This is how upsets happen in the playoffs. The Hawks won’t be playing the Columbus Blue Jackets or Buffalo Sabres, who play little defense and have average goaltending --at least on the nights the Hawks played them. Right now, the other three teams in the Central Division play better team defense and their goalies are having better years.
Even since the new rules were installed after the lockout, it’s been a while since a team has won a Stanley Cup needing to score four goals a game to do it. Unless something changes, this might be the year the Hawks need that kind of firepower if they hope to play into June.