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Sunday, December 4, 2011
Hawks lacking consistent effort

By Jesse Rogers

Maybe you noticed the NHL started putting players’ numbers on their helmets this year. If the league could go one step further and take team names and logos off jerseys, the Chicago Blackhawks might be better for it.

Jonathan Toews
Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks have played their best hockey against big-name opponents.

As the Hawks take a Sunday off before a rematch with Phoenix on Monday, they need to start considering every opponent elite before they take the ice. The only way to do this might be to hide who they’re playing.

Do you want to know who the Hawks take seriously? Look at the games they commit to defense; that’s the sign they are awake for the night.

Since the circus trip, the Hawks have given up little to Vancouver (1), San Jose (1), Los Angeles (1) and now St. Louis (2) -- all perennial playoff-caliber opponents. They’ve tanked against Calgary (5), Edmonton (9), Anaheim (5), Phoenix (4) and the New York Islanders (4).

The Coyotes’ game can be thrown out because that was a result of a hangover from their long road trip, but it would have been interesting to see if the Hawks could rise to the occasion for a sexier opponent.

So consider, they have a given up a total of 23 goals to four mediocre opponents while only five pucks have dented the back of the Hawks’ net against four much better foes. If that’s a coincidence, it’s a pretty big one.

So it’s clear in these games -- in wins and losses -- the Hawks didn’t take their opposition as serious as they claimed they were.

“It’s a dangerous team,” is a phrase often heard after morning practices but when the Hawks take the ice that night they often play defense like they’re skating against a minor league club.

There are holes to be poked in this theory, starting with the notion it doesn’t necessarily hold water going back to every game since the beginning of the season, but many nights in the opening month both teams are energized for the start of the season. By November, teams are settling in and don’t always bring the energy they should. The stark contrast in defensive play in the recent stretch of games, which has produced some lopsided scores, is too obvious to ignore.

And this isn’t about goaltending. Corey Crawford has struggled, there’s no doubt about that, but a goalie isn't likely to give up a breakaway tally because of the fact that he's facing an inferior foe.

The difference in defensive play in four consecutive recent games -- from Edmonton to San Jose to Anaheim to Los Angeles -- is striking and proves the theory. When the Hawks hunkered down they were great, when they relaxed, they were downright awful. The Sharks and Islanders games are the best examples. Both came after a couple days of rest, so fatigue or travel couldn’t be blamed. The Hawks displayed one of the best defensive efforts they could give against the Sharks, one of the better offensive teams in the league. They did the opposite against New York, which resides at the bottom of the league in scoring. The irony of hockey is that they lost to the Sharks but beat the Islanders.

“Sometimes when you’re playing a team like San Jose, you’re playing a team in L.A. or you’re down 4-2 to Anaheim you get scared,” defenseman Sean O’Donnell said after the Islanders game. “You’re able to ratchet it up.”

O’Donnell talked around the issue because he didn’t want to admit it outright, but he said it without saying it: The Hawks have to take their opponents more seriously no matter where that opponent resides in the standings.

The first time the Hawks played in St. Louis, the Blues were struggling and had just hired a new coach. They were the ones juiced for the game and it showed in the 3-0 shutout of Chicago. When the Hawks returned to Missouri on Saturday night they recognized the Blues are a contending team and the visitors played accordingly.

If you want a glass half-full conclusion to this theory, think about playoff hockey. No Hawks’ team led by Jonathan Toews and Joel Quenneville is going to take a postseason opponent lightly. That’s what’s great about the NHL playoffs. Every team is playing all out. So if the Hawks rise to the occasion when they want to now--and can play great defense and subsequently great hockey--then rest assured they will come spring.

Until then, take the “NY Islanders” off their jersey this Thursday when the Hawks play on Long Island and they might have a better night on the ice.