70-game review: Surviving without Toews

March, 13, 2012
3/13/12
10:33
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Jonathan ToewsAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIn their past 10 games, the Hawks are 5-4-1 without Jonathan Toews, who is unlikely to return Tuesday against the Blues.
Every 10 games I’ll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks just as the coaches do internally. Through 70 games the Hawks are 37-25-8. Here’s 10 things to know about the last 10 games and the first 70 with a peak at the final 12 and beyond.

Captain-less: Jonathan Toews missed games 61-70 and the Hawks went 5-4-1. That’s called surviving while missing the most important player on the team. Toews has been missed everywhere from face-offs (43 percent in Game No. 67) to shootouts (0-6 in Game No. 70) to everything in between. But in reality the Hawks have held their own. They won Game No. 67 and earned a point in No. 70. They have survived. And this could be a blessing in disguise. There is renewed hope for Patrick Kane at center, if he’s needed there, and Toews should be full of energy for the final playoff push. There are just enough games to get him in postseason beast mode when he returns. Plus the boost to morale might do as much off the ice as he does on it.

[+] EnlargeRay Emery
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireRay Emery took command of the goalie job during this 10-game stretch.
Goaltending: The last 10-game segment solidified Ray Emery as the goalie for the playoffs -- or at least it’s now his job to lose heading into the final couple of weeks of the regular season. There must have been a tipping point for Joel Quenneville because it wasn’t that long ago Corey Crawford had gone back-to-back-to-back games giving up just a single goal. Things turned quickly as he was pulled in two straight starts, including his last one, a 5-4 comeback win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. But only one of those goals was squarely on him and the Hawks “only” trailed 3-2 after the first period when the goalie change was made. Even Quenneville acknowledged the strange oddity of the back-up goaltender winning the starting job three straight years.

“Once is probably plenty,” he said. “Twice is a lot. Three is unusual. There is no rhyme or reason. It’s all coincidental. It’s just the way it seems to be working.”

No shutouts: Seventy games down with 12 to go and still the Hawks are the only team in the NHL without a shutout. It’s been over 20 years since the last time Chicago went a full season without shutting out an opponent (1988-89). The Philadelphia Flyers, in 2010-2011, were the last team in the NHL to fail to record a shutout over an entire season.

Second-line center: He may not be your ideal choice for second-line center in a four-round postseason run, but Marcus Kruger is the best the Hawks have for the job. It’s been 70 games and no one else has emerged. With Kruger missing action for a concussion the Hawks tried everyone but the Zamboni driver and still the young Swede remained the best choice. From cut on the final day of training camp all the way to a coveted and important role, Kruger might just be able to pull it off. Otherwise Patrick Sharp probably will finally land there but both players’ abilities are maxed out in their current positions.

Johnny O: Jonny Oduya joined the team for Games 65-70 and the Hawks have gone 4-1-1 with him in the lineup. He’s been as good as advertised as a puck-moving, undersized defenseman. His shot was lethal in Game No. 69 against the New York Rangers, earning him first star honors and a promotion to the power play. Oduya has also settled the defensive pairings into a more manageable group. Nice addition and nice player.

The power play: It shows life every so often but more times than not it’s stuck in neutral. The Hawks have tried seemingly everyone on the point; even Oduya has stepped into the first unit with Nick Leddy. It says a lot when Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are relegated to second-unit status. They’ve even tried bringing their director of player development Barry Smith in for some instruction and that has only helped minimally. It can turn around at any point but after 70 games the power play is converting at a 15.7 percent clip. That says it all.

[+] EnlargeMarian Hossa
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireThe Hawks need the pre-All-Star break Marian Hossa to show up down the stretch.
Jekyll and Hossa: Which Marian Hossa will show up down the stretch? Is it the one that was on fire before the All-Star break or the one that went quiet after? But there he was again picking up the pace in a recent stretch through games 62-67 when he produced four goals and two assists. But Game No. 68 in St. Louis may have been his worst of the year. He lost puck battles and fumbled his way through the game while looking disinterested. The Hawks need the Hossa that made any centerman he played with better in the first half of the season if they have any hope for a long postseason run.

Concussion talk: Toews’ honesty about his concussion brought to light a quiet phenomenon. At least three Hawks -- including Toews -- were either dishonest with themselves or the team or both when it came to their concussions. Marcus Kruger and Niklas Hjalmarsson came back for one game and immediately felt the effects and then sat out longer. Toews played through concussion symptoms for several games. It’s not a perfect science. A player can think he’s ready but in reality he’s not. He’ll know it sooner than anyone though, and being honest to save his season at the expense of a few games is prudent.

The lineup: Is Quenneville playing favorites when it comes to Andrew Brunette? Has Michael Frolik been so bad he actually ran some drills as an extra defenseman recently? Quenneville needs to get things in order for the playoff run so when Toews comes back, this is how things should look:

Andrew Shaw/Toews/Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp/Marcus Kruger/Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell/Dave Bolland/Viktor Stalberg
Jimmy Hayes/Jamal Mayers/Michael Frolik

If that’s too many rookies then Brunette can rotate in for Hayes and Stalberg always has the option of moving up. If Brandon Bollig shows he’s more than a fighter then he might have a place in a playoff lineup. Otherwise he’s insurance. And lest you think Stalberg can’t handle a third-line role, many were saying the same about Kris Versteeg and Marty Havlat before. Both excelled there and Stalberg can, too.

The playoffs: The Hawks just might luck into the best possible matchup they could imagine if they hold on to the No. 6 seed in the conference. Moving up would actually be devastating from a first-round matchup standpoint and moving down might not help either unless they faced Vancouver, a team they know they can play with. At No. 6 the Hawks will undoubtedly meet the Pacific Division winner who will have decidedly less points than the top two seeds and possible less than the Hawks. Dallas, Phoenix and San Jose are imminently more beatable than St. Louis, Detroit, Vancouver and Nashville -- at least on paper. The fall from the top seed in early January hurt in a lot of ways but the landing spot might be perfect, at least in the opening round.

Jesse Rogers | email

Chicago Cubs beat reporter
Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers the Chicago Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Patrick Sharp
PTS GOALS AST +/-
8 3 5 0
OTHER LEADERS
GoalsP. Sharp 3
AssistsP. Sharp 5
+/-B. Bickell 2
GAAC. Crawford 1.66