Just as the coaches do internally, every 10 games I'll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks. To say the last ten-game segment was a rollercoaster ride would be an understatement. Here's what you need to know about the last 10 games and the first 60 of the 32-21-7 Hawks:
When the postscript to this season is written, everyone will know what "the skid" refers to. In some ways it came out of the blue, like a slap in the face, but many would tell you they saw it coming due to the season-long "loose" nature of the Hawks defense. Just as hard as it is to win nine in a row, it's just as hard to lose that many. The longest streak in the NHL happened to the Hawks for a perfect storm of reasons. Several seemingly unconnected parts of their game slumped at the same time, starting with the power play and penalty kill. There's no reason both had to go south. In truth, Hawks penalty killing has been bad most of the year while the power play has just been wildly inconsistent. During the nine games the Hawks were one for 24 on the power play while killing off just 20 of 27 attempts against. Five-on-five offense dried up and goaltender play was below average as well. The Hawks couldn't manage to steal one because their style and goalie play didn't allow for it to happen. Games 6-8 of the skid were the worst because the Hawks weren't displaying a "heightened" sense of urgency nor were they making the on-ice adjustments that would end the streak. Overall, it was the black mark on what still could be a good season.
The Hawks returned from the second leg of their road trip under fire. Criticism ranged from their core players to their netminders to their coach and front office. Finally, the players started showing the desperation that should have been there days before. A tough loss in Nashville was the building block to the current winning streak, and the break they needed came in the first minute at Madison Square Garden in Game No. 58. Jonathan Toews' penalty shot might be as important in a positive way as Kevin Klein's center ice score in Game 1 of the losing streak was in a negative way. Games 57-60 were played with more desire and work ethic while the Hawks made the strategic changes many were waiting for. It should have come earlier but those struggles could pay dividends the rest of the way. The Hawks kept saying they felt they would be better because of their struggles, the turnaround might prove them right.
Smith is not a name most are familiar with but he very well might have been instrumental to helping the Hawks out of their rut. His title is Director of Player Development, but he's a former coach and Scotty Bowman disciple. In fact he coached the Detroit Red Wings for a few games in 1998 while Bowman recovered from knee surgery. Scotty was on the trip during the games in Western U.S. and watched the Hawks give up three power play goals to San Jose and play poorly in Phoenix after a five-goal debacle in Colorado. When the Hawks left for games 6-9 of their road trip out east Smith was with them. Joel Quenneville said "he was helping out." While not addressing the players himself, changes were made. Penalty killers took more direct routes to point men and shooting lanes were snuffed out. The result? The Hawks haven't given up a power play goal since the Sharks game, a span of five games and 14 attempts. A better overall defensive structure played a part in the end to the bad streak and start to the good one and Smith was there for every part of it. He still is. But there's one thing he or the coaches have yet to fix ...
Amazingly, the power play didn't have a goal over the last ten-game segment, and as the coaches talk individually with players they should be discussing with each other -- yet again -- what to do with an important part of the Hawks game which has fallen to 19th in the league. It's been the same old story for them. Their point men are unsure what to do with the puck. Shoot or pass? Fake or skate? The Hawks have men in front of the net but the shots aren't getting there. For example, they produced just two shots on three attempts in Game 60 on Sunday. And Patrick Kane, for one, needs to fire the puck without hesitation. Dirty goals happen off chaos in the offensive zone. Unless a shot is blocked up near the point, getting one on net or close to it starts the defensive scramble which leads to scores. Marian Hossa should once again be considered to play the point as his accuracy from there might be the best on the team. There is hope. A power play can get hot at anytime as proven the year the Hawks won the Cup. Stuck in an 0-for-29 slump, it's about time to do some damage.
Lost in the shuffle of the losing streak and the turnaround is that two-sixths of the Hawks defense has been sidelined. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador were sent home from the road giving Sami Lepisto and Dylan Olsen major playing time. They've both had their moments -- Lepisto's glaring turnover in Game 59 in Columbus cost him playing time -- but they've held their own in a pressure cooker of a situation: trying to help the team break a long losing skid. Olsen has been given a ton of responsibility playing with Duncan Keith. His best game may have been against St. Louis in Game 60 when he earned 6 hits and a plus-2 rating seeing nearly 20 minutes of ice time. Lepisto redeemed himself by getting his first goal as a Hawk after getting benched. He might be headed back to street clothes as the Hawks get healthy on the back-end but will Olsen see minutes when Hjalmarsson and Montador are back? He's at least part of the conversation now as the Hawks also look to make a trade for a defenseman.
The Hawks traded for Brendan Morrison just as this last 10-game segment kicked off but only a couple of games were needed to assess his play. He just doesn't have the burst to play in the top 6 and right now finds himself in street clothes. Maybe it's his age combined with his knee but Morrison probably won't have another real chance to crack the lineup unless there is a new injury or two. Bickell, on the other hand, might be solidifying his position on the third line. After his latest benching he's come back strong in Games 55-60, producing three points including two goals. And he's played disciplined, unlike Frolik who took two four minute high stick penalties during the losing streak and that found him in street clothes as well. Frolik will probably get another chance before the playoffs to prove himself as he was a valuable piece last postseason, but Quenneville made it clear, recently, all parts of his game have to be better.
More evidence needs to be gathered before a declaration can be made that Corey Crawford has turned the corner, but it's noteworthy he gave up less than two goals in back-to-back games for the first time since December 21 and 26. As good as those games were, his performances in Game 52 in Edmonton and in San Jose in Game 55, left something to be desired. And before you start screaming the defense has been better, Crawford admitted he needs to be better.
"I thought I was starting to run out of position and ending up out of my net where it was costing us a goal every game," he said after game 60. "That's too much."
The criticism has been warranted, but it doesn't mean Crawford can't find his game again for the most important time of the season. He's off to a good start.
Statistically Speaking: Hits
Is there any more misleading statistic than hits? Great teams have the puck more so they should be taking more hits than delivering them. But then again delivering a hit might retrieve the puck a little quicker and no one will downplay the effect of a physical fore-check. So let's look at the standings and see if anything translates or makes sense. The New York Rangers are a physical team that fore-checks and they are at the top of the standings. They lead the league in hits. The Hawks are ranked 27th but Nashville and San Jose are 28th and 29th, respectively. All three are having good seasons. Dallas and Columbus rank third and fourth in the league but probably won't sniff the playoffs. The bottom line is the stat is meaningless without some perspective behind it. The eye test tells if a team is being physical enough, not a boxscore.
The clock is certainly ticking on general manager Stan Bowman as all eyes are on him leading up to next Monday's trade deadline. If the Hawks' nine-game losing streak proved anything it's that they don't have a Stanley Cup winner on the ice as is. The drama surrounding Bowman is interesting. The Hawks are a very tight-lipped organization. Many of their trades come with no warnings or leaks. Is he preparing for a major deal or has he already been missing out on the depth defensemen that have moved teams so far? And don't count out the Hawks getting at least one forward, in fact, bank on them trying. Between now and 2 p.m. next Monday, you can curse or praise him but we won't know Bowman's grade until the deadline passes. He missed on Brendan Morrison but that doesn't mean he'll miss again ... or does it?
With 22 games remaining on the schedule this is the time Joel Quenneville needs to start tinkering with his lines thinking about the playoffs. He's already dropped Viktor Stalberg onto the third line, getting him even more comfortable with Dave Bolland and Bryan Bickell. He could be a key, as a scorer outside the top two lines while helping Bolland with shutdown duties. The question still remains, who plays center on the second line? Barring a trade, the time to move Patrick Sharp back to the middle might be coming. Marcus Kruger has done more than admirable work there, easily being the best of the available options so far. Sharp and Hossa together would at least keep two stars on each line, which was what the Hawks wanted at the beginning of the year when Patrick Kane played center. Otherwise, maybe Kruger can handle it. He's done everything asked of him so far.