- Jesse Rogers, Chicago Cubs beat reporter
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Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, coach Joel Quenneville, senior adviser Scotty Bowman, CEO John McDonough and probably every ticket usher at the United Center must be feeling about the same thing today: shock.
The way the Hawks have played throughout the season and especially during a current six-game losing streak could not have been foreseen. Even knowing they were a player short after jettisoning the likes of Brian Campbell -- and choosing not to spend the money they saved on him -- there is no way anyone could think the Hawks would be this bad on defense.
Not even the staunchest Vancouver or Detroit fans could have seen this one coming, but they must be loving it.
Tuesday’s 5-2 loss in Colorado was a microcosm of their defensive problems for the entire season: Turnovers by forwards creating chances the other way, where Hawks blue-liners were unable to kill plays followed by average goaltending. Yes, Ray Emery played well early, but games don’t last 20 or 40 minutes. The back-breaking goals in the third period were partly on him, no matter how many odd-man rushes he faced.
So it’s all three sets of players: forwards, defensemen and the goalie that contributed to another loss, now the most consecutively since 2008.
If the Hawks believe “this is just a stretch all good teams go through” then they haven’t been watching the games. In wins their defense and/or goaltending has stunk. In losses, it has stunk. In close games and blowouts it has stunk.
"You try not to overreact too much," Bowman said to ESPN.com’s Craig Custance on Tuesday about the ups and downs of the regular season.
And therein lies the dilemma. Is this all part of the rigors of a long season? It’s hard to believe that knowing how consistently bad the defense has been. Maybe Bowman and Co., are so in shock they’re in denial. Could you blame them? Looking at the glass even half-full and it’s hard to know which area needs fixing the most. A case can be made personnel changes need to be made among all positions.
This is hockey. And though the rule changes opened the game up, on many nights in the NHL it’s not that different than soccer. It can be hard to find scoring. Quenneville might not admit it means anything -- he recently said it didn’t matter -- but the Hawks remain without a shutout after 54 games. They’ve won just once all season when scoring two goals or less. That’s not a small sample size. This is 54 games with 28 remaining before the surest of clichés in hockey takes over: scoring will come down in the postseason.
The Hawks better hope it drastically is reduced for their opponent -- if they even get to play into late April.
As is the Hawks are creeping toward the three goals given up per game average. Currently they’re at 2.96. According to the Elias Sports Bureau only three of the past 20 Cup winners have given up more than three goals per game in the regular season. So it can be done, just not very often.
They’ve set themselves up for a historically bad road trip. Losers of eight in a row on the road already, the Hawks will find it only gets tougher. A reminder of what could have been in goal for the Hawks comes Friday in San Jose when they see Antti Niemi. Then they might get a breather against the offensively-challenged Phoenix Coyotes, but at this rate who knows?. Three more games out East won’t be easy even if one is against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s game No. 9 on the trip. By then, frustration could be at peak levels.
So what can they do short of a major blockbuster trade which doesn’t appear to be on the horizon? First off, Quenneville should pull out the tape of the last time the Hawks were in San Jose, the night before Thanksgiving. It’s been mentioned many times in this blog as the Hawks' best defensive game of the season.
Unfortunately, it came way back in late November and they lost the game 1-0. Niemi was great that night but so were the Hawks. They swarmed on defense and stopped the Sharks from getting the attempts they wanted. Watch that game and play like that again. That’s step No. 1.
The next idea is to break up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Their chemistry is stale right now and both could use a change. At least for a while. There are no great answers on defense. All have struggled at times but whoever can “kills” plays before they get to the net gets the playing time -- though it’s hard to know which players those are.
Bowman has to up the ante for a defenseman if for no other reason than to shake up the mix on the back end. If he needs to overpay for one then he may as well do so. In recent interviews, Bowman has made it clear the trade market is near dead despite the Feb. 27 deadline approaching. If so, then it’s all on the 23 current players and coaches to fix their problems before it’s too late.
There is no reason besides hope to believe they will. Even Bowman had to invoke Corey Crawford’s 2010-2011 year to sell his credentials.
“Crow was dynamic for us last season,” he said after his team lost to Edmonton last week. “He pretty much helped us get into the playoffs, and then he was dynamite in the playoffs. We’re only 7, 8 months removed from that. Success can help boost your confidence and get you back in short order. That’s the way we approach it.”
What’s next, invoking the 2010 championship team as evidence the Hawks can play defense? It didn’t happen early in the season, it’s not happening now and leaving things be after 54 games is only asking for more trouble.
But maybe nothing can be done to save this season. That’s the scariest notion of all for Blackhawk fans.