- Jesse Rogers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every 10 games, I’ll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks, just as the coaches do internally. At 16-12-2, have they finally turned a corner? Who’s got the net? Here are 10 things to know about the last 10 games and first 30:
10 - The right direction: It’s going slow and there have been few defining wins so far, but the Hawks are heading in the right direction. A 7-3 mark over the past 10 games is an indication what the Hawks were saying about their game, even before the results started to come, was correct. It gives Joel Quenneville credibility in the dressing room and with the fans. When they were playing like a .500 team and their record reflected it, he didn’t try to spin it. But even as the results weren’t all positive, he saw good signs. Right before the "Circus Trip" he relayed those to the public and his team. The Hawks backed up his words with solid play and the results have started to come. The one defining win they earned came in this last 10 game segment. A 7-1 whitewashing of their old nemesis, Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks in Game No. 23. But Luongo got some revenge with a 3-0 shutout in Game 28.
9 -- Smart move: Though it was a loss, Game No. 24 against the Sharks might have more meaning than anyone will remember. It culminated the end of an “experiment,” which looked good for a moment but in the end was not going to pay off. Splitting up Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, along with Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson made sense, since the pairs weren’t playing well and the minutes were piling up on the former two. Balance was found with a new look but not necessarily chemistry. Keith looked uncomfortable with Nick Boynton, especially. After the loss in San Jose, it’s as if Quenneville thought “enough is enough, minutes be damned, I’m going with my best players and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.” The minutes have increased for the top defensemen since, but their play has improved as well. If those four can’t get it done, the Hawks won’t be special come spring, anyway, so rolling the dice with them is the way to go.
8 -- The captain: Like Patrick Kane did a season ago while Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa were on the shelf, it’s the captain’s turn to pick up some slack with the other two on the mend. Even if his production isn’t Crosby like, Toews still is a marvel to watch on the ice. Trying to compare him to players present and past isn’t easy. He’s stronger than Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman, but isn’t the natural scorer those two were. He’s more of a Bryan Trottier type, but to compare him to anyone might be a disservice. His combination of balance, strength and skill is unique. How he gets a defender twisting and turning is a thing of beauty. His goal against the Dallas Stars in Game No. 30 is a great example. Coming down the wing on defenseman Nicklas Grossman, Toews had Grossman stopping and starting before the D-man completely lost a step on Toews, allowing him a shooting lane. At a time when the Hawks need him most, you could make the argument Toews is playing his best hockey of the season.
7 -- Great Scott: He may not be great just yet, but John Scott should have a better place in people’s minds than a month or so ago. His pummeling of the Kings’ Kevin Westgarth in Game No. 26 was his defining moment to date. He is doing exactly what the Hawks need: to intimidate. Few want a piece of him and those who do usually come away worse for the wear. As for his play, as soon as Joel Quenneville realized -- with the rest of Hawks nation -- he’s not suited for defense, he’s been just fine as a fourth-line sub. He may not put up much in points (he has zero) and there is the occasional turnover (Vancouver in Game 28). Still, in the offensive zone, Scott has been decent below the net, cycling and playing a physical role.
6 -- Hammer time: After an admittedly awful start to the season, during which he put way too much pressure on himself, Hjalmarsson has come around. He produced his first goal and assist during the last 10-game segment while earning a plus-7. He’s tied for 19th in the league in blocked shots with 58. Also, his once reliable play in his own end has returned. Look for the offense to slowly increase in production as well.
5 -- Statistically speaking: As of game 30, Troy Brouwer is seventh in the NHL with 89 hits. … Toews has won 392 faceoffs, second only to Sidney Crosby, while his winning percentage is a gaudy 60 percent. …. Patrick Sharp is second in the league with 127 shots to go along with 50 missed shots. He ranks 77th in shooting percentage. … Keith leads all players in ice time, averaging 27:18. Seabrook ranks eighth.
4 -- Special teams: The Hawks' poor play on the penalty killing has been somewhat overlooked. For a coach and team that speak and preach defensive responsibility -- that includes when they're down a man -- their 26th ranking on the penalty kill is embarrassing. Do they miss John Madden that much? Aren’t Bolland, Toews and Hossa -- when he’s playing -- some of the best in the business? It’s hard to explain how it can drastically change for the better or worse from year to year, but it has. In truth, the Hawks' defensemen might be to blame more than anyone. They haven’t cleared the front of the net and there have been stretches during which the opposition has owned the space behind it. With improved play from Hjalmarsson and Keith, maybe the penalty killing improves as well, but in the past 10 games, opponents scored at least one power-play goal in seven of them. That’s not nearly good enough. Meanwhile, the power play continues to show consistency, ranking third in the league. The Hawks scored a season-high four power-play goals against Calgary in Game No. 29 and that all occurred after Patrick Kane left with an injury. It’s been solid.
3 -- Goalie change: Is it happening again? A veteran being replaced by a hot-shot rookie? It’s happening for now, at least. Corey Crawford is every bit of calm and cool that you’d want out of a 25 year old. He’s proving those who stood by him throughout his years in the minors, weren’t wrong. And more than just a fan or two saw this coming. Marty Turco has been OK, but when a team is hovering around .500, OK, is not good enough. The door opened slightly for Crawford. He’s gone ahead and kicked it in. He’s always been sound technically; it’s the mental part of Crawford's game that’s been most impressive. And in a nod to the Stanley Cup winning goaltender who came before him, his best play has been in crunch time. The time at which the Hawks were losing some close games when Turco was in net, they’re winning those with Crawford. It may not last but if he takes the job for good, we’ll look at this past 10 game segment as the changing point.
2 -- The schedule: The computer that made the NHL schedule did the Hawks no favors. That’s been well documented. To this point of the season, they are among the teams that have played the most games. That's not an easy task for a team coming off a short summer. And a look ahead to when the rest of the league completely catches up, doesn’t prove to help the Hawks much either. The Hawks will be off a week, right before the All-Star break. That’s when the games will even out, but how much of an advantage will it be when the Hawks play three games after that week off and then everyone will be off for the All-Star Game? Their rest will be negated and the only advantage might come in those three games. At least they should dominate in those games knowing more rest is coming, but it’s not enough to offset what has been a brutal schedule to date.
1 -- The injury bug: Yes, plenty of good to great players have missed time, but take a look at the other teams around the league. The Hawks have not lost anyone for more than a month at a time. That’s a positive. Knock on wood, but there have been no lingering concussions or broken bones. Of course, it was unfortunate when Boynton ran into Hossa in practice, but unfortunate incidents are part of the game. Injuries can't be used as an excuse. They weren’t last year and the Hawks dealt with no less than three -- Adam Burish, Hossa, and Dave Bolland -- which were all more long term. Add Toews getting crushed by Willie Mitchell last season and this year seems tame. No complaining, please.