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Thursday, February 9, 2012
Slumping Hawks go back to basics

By Jesse Rogers



SAN JOSE -- Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp has a message for Hawks’ fans: “We’ll be better because of this.”

As strange as it sounds, Sharp and the Hawks are hoping their six-game losing streak eventually brings them closer to being the team they want to be. Maybe completely bottoming out on defense is the way to start over.

“If I had the right quote or the magic recipe I’d throw it out there,” Sharp said after a lengthy practice at HP Pavilion on Thursday. “All I can say is we’re working through it. We’re not happy. We believe in each other. I know our fans out there want us to win every game and we know we have the support of them and we’re going to be a better team because of this.”

It’s a positive outlook to a situation that looks bleak. But this is early February not April so there is plenty of time to turn things around—even if the Hawks haven’t shown the ability to do so.

On Thursday, coach Joel Quenneville conducted a hockey clinic during practice stressing the basics of defense through the neutral zone. The day before he had what one Hawk described as an “ugly” film session in Denver after an awful 5-2 loss in which they gave up no less than eight odd man chances to the Avalanche.

“[Wednesday], we were at an educational facility at Denver University,” Quenneville said. “We had a perfect theater for a nice session and we did. I thought it was longer than we generally do.”

And what they found is really no different today than it was months ago: breakdowns all over the ice leading to high quality chances in the other direction.

“We’re doing too many high risk plays right now and with no outcome,” Bryan Bickell stated. “We need to do the simple things. The hard working, hard hat type of things.”

That might include dumping the puck and chasing it down. It will avoid the blue-line turnovers the Hawks were so proficient at in Colorado.

Corey Crawford
The Blackhawks are counting on Corey Crawford to get them back on the winning track.

“We talked about details, we talked about our positioning and more so on the defensive side of things and trying to keep the puck out of our net,” Quenneville explained. “That’s an emphasis that we’ve gone through and probably let it slide a little bit when we were scoring goals and weren’t looking to prevent them at the regular rate.”

It’s refreshing to hear Quenneville admit to a coaching mistake, if only to show that he understands the big picture problem. He allowed offense to run the show too long. It’s now or never to get back to playing team defense like the Hawks did when they won the Stanley Cup.

“I think Joel does a good job of reinforcing systems and reinforcing the way we like to play,” Sharp said. “We have similar practices for days before games but today [Thursday] we did a little bit more instructional stuff and working to get out of this.”

Film and then intense practice. The Hawks went back to school the last couple of days. Hockey 101 is in session. Grades start to come out Friday night.

The vibe

Many fans must be wondering what it’s like in the dressing room during the toughest stretch in several years. The Hawks are simply not used to losing six games in a row.

“It sucks,” Brent Seabrook said. “No one wants to go through this. It’s something that happens in hockey. We’re going to get out of this. We have to work hard to get out of it. Everyone understands that.”

And it’s not just your every day fans that are asking questions. Friends and family members want to know what’s wrong and when it’s going to be changed.

“There are a lot of different solutions,” Patrick Kane said. “I’m sure everyone has their two cents to put into it but it’s the players and the coaches, our job, to get ourselves out of it.”

And while frustration mounts the Hawks were quick to point out that’s all it is. Frustration with each other can sometimes lead to anger between teammates. The former can be healthy, the latter can be detrimental.

“We’ve talked the last couple days how we’re going to come out of this and be a better team for it,” Sharp said. “Now isn’t the time to start pointing fingers and going against each other.”

Sharp knows it would be easy for this team to do exactly that. The defense might point to the forwards and the forwards to the defense. Goalies could point to everyone.

But maybe being so bad on defense allows no one off the hook. At this point everyone could be looking in the mirror.

“I don’t want to say it’s a fun time but it’s a challenge to get ourselves out of it,” Kane said. “We’re doing some different things to get out of it.”

Nothing like a long, losing road trip to kill the enjoyment of being a professional athlete. Their paychecks might still cash but that doesn’t mean the day-to-day is all that fun.

“It hurts when you lose this many in a row,” Seabrook said. “It sucks coming to the rink. It’s definitely a pride issue.”

Crawford starts

Joel Quenneville is grabbing onto anything he can in deciding who gets the net these days. If Ray Emery had won the last game or even played better in a loss, he’d assuredly be the starter come Friday against San Jose. Quenneville chose to go back to Corey Crawford.

“He [Crawford] played great in here last game,” Quenneville said of a 1-0 loss to the Sharks in November. “I thought he had a real strong game. Ray was in there the last two games and we’re going to need both guys and so he gets back in the net.”

Invoking a game from months ago isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement and “needing both guys” really means they don’t have one they truly have confidence in. It’s doesn’t take a hockey expert to see the Hawks are unsure at their goaltending position. There’s been no definitive evidence they’re looking at the trade market to help save this season but at this point it wouldn’t come as a shock.

New lines -- again

Practice on Thursday consisted of new forward lines as Quenneville tries to find the right combinations to end the six game losing streak. Jonathan Toews centered Marian Hossa and Michael Frolik while Marcus Kruger was between Patrick’s Kane and Sharp. Dave Bolland played the middle on the third line with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw on the wings and Jamal Mayers centered Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Brunette.

The most glaring change was Frolik’s addition to the top line while Stalberg was dropped all the way down. Frolik has five goals to Stalberg’s 15 but Stalberg is more likely to make the big turnover as he did in one sequence against the Avalanche leading to the winning goal.

As usual, Quenneville said he was looking for “balance” in the makeup of the lines but Frolik is the beneficiary of a message being sent: turnovers will demote you quicker than scoring will promote.

Slappers

Steve Montador missed practice for a second consecutive day with an upper body injury. Quenneville called him doubtful for Friday’s game against San Jose. There was no indication on Thursday who would take his place in the lineup.

Niklas Hjalmarsson also missed a second consecutive practice with an illness but Quenneville said he was “doing better” and would likely play on Friday.

• Sharks coach Todd McLellan would not reveal his starting goaltender for Friday’s game as San Jose prepares to embark on a nine game road trip of their own. But he is well aware of netminder Antti Niemi’s past success against his former team.

“That will weigh into our decision,” McLellan said. “We also have a lot of hockey coming up so there’s a good chance we’ll see him but we still have to make that choice.”