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Sunday, March 14, 2010
Hawks in trouble

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The complaints have seemed extraneous, like whining about bad coffee at the end of a five-star meal.

A few soft goals and defensive slip-ups should be forgivable in a season in which the Western Conference power Chicago Blackhawks are winning at an obnoxious clip.

"I think some teams are so good, you've got to look for faults," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said Sunday.

Jonathan Toews
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews scored two goals in his team's losing effort on Sunday.

It wasn't hard to see the cracks in the Heartbreak Hawks on Sunday, and it wasn't the goaltending. Behind an undermanned and shaky defense and an inability to muster late offense, the Hawks fell to 3-4 since the Olympic break with a wildly disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Sunday in a nationally televised game between Stanley Cup favorites. Chicago looked like a team capable of an early playoff exit and a summer of recriminations. You want to believe the best, to see the good in a team that has been very, very promising, but a weekend like this makes you think twice.

Washington star Alex Ovechkin's early ouster for a rough hit that knocked Brian Campbell out of the game -- and possibly the season -- made Sunday's game less of a showcase affair. The Hawks' poor finish made them look like less of a Cup contender, while the Capitals looked resilient.

It wasn't just giving up three goals in the third period for the second straight game after Saturday's 3-2 loss in Philadelphia, though that's certainly cause for worry. But it was that the Blackhawks couldn't close out a lead at home while the Capitals were missing their best player. If you can't get up for this game, when can you?

"It's late in the season now," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "These are the kind of games we have to learn how to put away."

Instead of tossing their free St. Patrick's Day hats onto the ice to honor a Jonathan Toews hat trick -- he scored two in the first period -- fans were left scratching their heads in disbelief after Nicklas Backstrom scored the game winner, a shot through Antti Niemi's five-hole in overtime.

Thanks to some dumb penalties, the short-handed Hawks coughed up a 3-0 lead in the third, allowing the Caps to score their second and third goals in a span of 13 seconds.

"We let them back in the game, it's pretty simple," Toews said. "We took penalties and did other little things that gave them a chance. We didn't need to score any goals, but we focused more on getting ahead in the offensive zone and we ended up hurting ourselves and shooting ourselves in the foot in the third."

Even more unforgivable is that in this game Chicago had just one shot in the third period after 20 in the first two. "One shot?" Hawks fans were saying, channeling Bob Uecker's Harry Doyle in "Major League." That's a sign that the team was having problems with puck possession, one of its strengths that supposedly neutralizes shaky goaltending.

"It's playing with the lead," a frustrated Toews said. "I don't know if we got too comfortable. It's not just a few guys, it's the entire team. It's our power play. It's going out there and not producing. We have the most skill in the league, and there's no reason being up 3-0 that we can't finish the game off."

Few Blackhawks made themselves available to the media after the game and you can't blame them. It's not easy to watch a front-running team crumble around you. This is a rare Chicago team that will be considered a major disappointment if it doesn't at least compete for a championship. And in a league in which the salary cap can be an unforgiving Grim Reaper, who knows how long they can keep the non-core members of this team around?

But forget about that. This season has just gotten really interesting. The Hawks now go on a three-game road trip out West, starting with woeful Anaheim on Wednesday. Nine of the team's final 14 are on the road. Barring a total collapse, the Hawks should get the No. 2 seed in the West, if they can't overtake San Jose, which came into Sunday with a 96-93 points advantage.

There's no reason for a young, spirited team like Chicago to have dead legs, so you have to wonder if the team, as a communal unit, is having trouble focusing on the nitty-gritty details so long into a season. That's why the worriers among us were so eager to get a better goalie. Sunday's game was evidence that the team's high-powered offense can be shut down by an opportunistic team and a pesky defense. The Capitals seemingly had a stick or a body in between every pass in the third period.

"Good teams like that can score and make plays," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They were a threat off the rush. I think we didn't manage the puck well. We gave up too many quality opportunities off the rush, odd-man breaks. I think that's where it starts. They have an active defense and they make plays. All of a sudden they had five guys on the attack."

For the second straight day, goaltenders didn't cause the loss. It was bad defense, plain and simple. After stopping the Capitals' first 18 shots, Niemi let in 3 of 11 in the third, and the Caps' lone shot in overtime. Cristobal Huet was the victim of defensive lapses Saturday.

The Capitals scored all three goals in just over two minutes, the first off a power play and the last two in a flurry. The tying goal came in a blink after Niklas Hjalmarsson got outworked behind the net by David Steckel, who fed a wide-open Eric Fehr in front of the goal for a slapshot.

Niemi successfully defended the Capitals' two-minute 5-on-3 advantage, sparked by high sticking penalties on Jordan Hendry (a double minor) and Colin Fraser, but Backstrom scored just after the power play ended. No one was blaming Niemi, not even after overtime.

"We would've scored 10 goals if not for Niemi," Boudreau said.

The Caps coach said he knew the team would be vulnerable in the third. The Hawks were without Marian Hossa and Kim Johnsson from the get-go. Campbell's loss was felt as well.

"I think they were a little tired," Boudreau said. "They had an emotional game [Saturday] and we kept saying, we have to get it deep in the third period."

The Hawks still earned a point, and the worst news after the game was Campbell's injury, which league sources said was a broken clavicle and broken ribs that could keep Campbell out for the season. With momentum on his side, Ovechkin shoved Campbell behind the Hawks' net and Campbell's shoulder smacked into the boards as he crumpled to the ice.

"'Soupy' is going to be out for a bit," Quenneville said directly after the game. "It was a tough hit, a dangerous hit."

Ovechkin got a five-minute penalty for boarding, which led to Toews' second goal, and was booted from the game for the third time this season. As you would expect, Ovechkin, who didn't know the extent of the injury, said it wasn't a purposeful hit. I'll give you a second to scoff.

"It was not a hard hit," he said. "I just wanted to push him. It's just a moment in the game. I don't think it has to be five minutes of something like that. I just felt bad."

Captain Serious wasn't buying it.

"It's pretty frustrating that players don't take a stand against stuff like that," said Toews, the team captain and Olympic hero. "We should respect ourselves a little more and know it's not about the flashy hit. You have to know when it's a dangerous situation and you could hurt somebody, and be smarter about it."

Led by their star's example, the Capitals play an aggressive style of hockey. With 27 seconds left in the first period, Brooks Laich nailed Patrick Kane into his own goal, dislodging the pipes. On the ensuing shift, Fraser and Adam Burish got a little payback, starting a fight on the other side to end the period. Burish got perhaps the game's biggest cheers as he skated off.

The Hawks missed Burish's toughness this season and they'll need to channel their frustration before the playoffs start. This team is suffering from a major case of ennui, and it needs to get it together quickly. The playoffs are coming quicker than a 5-on-2 rush.

The question is: Are the Blackhawks the team with five or two?