Commentary

Hawks never solved their problems

Weak power play, shaky defense and goalie struggles carry over into playoffs

Updated: April 24, 2012, 9:55 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The 300-level rowdies were howling in the third period when the Chicago Blackhawks' Jimmy Hayes was sent off the ice for a brutal boarding call on Michal Rozsival, who lay prone on the ice.

"That's not a penalty!" one yelled.

This was halfway through the period and en route to a season-ending 4-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. You wondered about the irony there, or maybe the hypocrisy, but really you almost felt sorry for the bloodthirsty lot.

After all, they're hockey fans, not irony fans. To the provincial, the Hayes hit wasn't brutal, it was just a "hockey play." Brutal was going 0-3 at home and missing all 39 shots in Game 6.

While Hayes' hit will be forgotten, the series' previous incidence of hockey violence was probably the only memorable moment of this series. Well, violence and all those overtime games.

Coyotes instigator Raffi Torres' knockout shot on Marian Hossa, a much worse offense, in Game 3 practically sealed this series and not only inflamed the Chicago fans and headline writers, but also shined a light on the nightly unnecessary thuggery in the league during the one time the league is marketable on a national level.

[+] EnlargeBlackhawks
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks weren't up to the task again in the playoffs.

As Torres served the third game of a lengthy 25-game suspension, Hossa's jersey hung in his locker as a reminder of his absence.

"I always look back at the series and there's a defining situation that you could say was a turning point," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought [Torres' hit on Hossa] was probably one."

Hossa joined the team Monday at the morning skate. It was his first trip out of the house after leaving the hospital after Game 3, but his presence couldn't inspire the team to victory.

"Hossa hasn't felt very well at all," Quenneville said, choking back emotion. "It was his first day out of the house. He's not doing a lot. We saw him. Hopefully he progresses."

Hossa should be back next season. As for the rest of the team, well, let's just say general manager Stan Bowman has some work to do. For the second straight year, the Blackhawks were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs. You give them a mulligan on last season, after the salary cap forced draconian cuts. But there is no excuse for this season. There are decisions to be made. The team needs a second-line center. And is Corey Crawford the answer?

"Last year we never made any excuses," captain Jonathan Toews said. "But when you come in off a long offseason, we had hopes for this team this year. We know with those hopes come a lot of pressure as well. We went through some tough times this year and we always seemed to come out better and stronger as a team. Even being down 3-1 in this series, there was no doubt we'd come back and win this in Game 7. We were cut short a game, I guess."

The Hawks got off to a fast, but ultimately ineffectual start in Game 6. A 16-2 shot advantage in the first period yielded no goals. Phoenix led 1-0 after two periods despite being outshot 28-8. Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored a power-play goal from just inside the blue line.

Phoenix meets the Nashville Predators in the second round. Call it the Blutarsky Series, because the ratings will rival his infamous 0.0 GPA.

"I don't know what to say right now," Toews said as he smoldered politely at his locker, arms crossed and brow furrowed. "We worked so hard, we had so many chances. And every time we get a chance and it doesn't go in, Coach Quenneville keeps saying to keep working, we'll get another one. It's going to go in eventually. And it just didn't. We didn't get the bounces that we needed to win the game tonight. It's as simple as that."

That basically defines the Hawks' season. They could put shots on goal, but they couldn't get bounces. But it wasn't just that. Special teams, goaltending, consistency on defense. It just wasn't there. This was a playoff team, but not a championship team.

At one point, the Hawks had the best record in the league. But a nine-game losing streak severely dampened the Stanley Cup mojo, and Toews' concussion didn't help matters. Toews missed the final 22 games of the regular season.

"I'm not going to sit here and make excuses," he said. "If your game's not 100 percent, there's always something you can do to contribute to the team. Obviously, for a guy like myself, you take some responsibility when your team loses. I'm OK with that."

Since Toews missed so much time, my MVP of the season was the marketing department for keeping a sponsor for the team's power play. And an energy company at that!

Constellation Energy didn't get its money's worth. The Blackhawks were 1-for-19 on the power play in this series and were in the bottom five for the season, suffering an 0-for-39 drought that ended in late February. In this game, the Blackhawks were 0-for-3 on the power play and gave up two on the penalty kill.

"It's frustrating," Toews said. "It's not like we weren't trying or we didn't care. There's a lot of skill out there. We just couldn't get it done. It was kind of that way all season and we can't come into the playoffs and expect to turn on the switch and see a better power play."

The switch was never flipped and the Blackhawks' season is over. The fans will be back next season, hungry and bloodthirsty, but what kind of team will they have to root for: A Stanley Cup contender or a first-round out?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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