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By the time word of the Chicago Blackhawks' practice traveled from Edmonton back to Chicago earlier this week, a tough, 45-minute workout had turned into a backbreaking puke-a-thon with the players still standing at the end having to crawl off the ice afterward in shame.
|The defending Stanley Cup champs have been maddeningly inconsistent.|
Maybe that's what some Hawks' fans wanted to hear as their defending Stanley Cup champions were sinking further and further into that black hole also known as the NHL non-playoff hinterlands. But in truth, said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville and others who were actually there, like ESPNChicago.com's Jesse Rogers, there are skates that are much worse and, in truth, it was simply a hard practice after a couple losses.
Nope, the time for the message-sending, back-breaking sessions and loud speech-making passed a while ago, and Quenneville has tried all of them, most behind closed doors. Either the Hawks get it by now or they don't. And it is very difficult to believe that they don't.
But getting it and doing it, as the commercial for the Huntington Learning Center has been telling us since the kids in the ad were actually kids, are two different things. The surprising thing about the Hawks is not that they are struggling. If you didn't think losing 10 regulars would impact them negatively, performance-wise, you were in serious denial.
The surprising thing is who is struggling and how they're doing it.
For a team whose title run was forged on resiliency and toughness and consistency, those qualities have been in short supply from the guys they should be counting on most. With the exception of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, it is anyone's guess each night what the Hawks' will get from their other Stanley Cup-winning veterans.
"They need [Patrick] Kane and [Marian] Hossa and [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook to get that consistency in their games as they've been doing the last couple of years," said NBC and Comcast SportsNet analyst Eddie Olczyk. "To me, when those guys are going, this team feeds off those players.
"It has nothing to do with goals, assists and points, it's more than that. When those guys are playing like they can, this team becomes dangerous. That's why they get the big bucks, that's who they are and that's why they won the Stanley Cup last year, because of players like that. They make everyone else's job much easier."
Let us not discount the Hawks' profound loss of depth as much as talent. And we should pause once again to give thanks for the circumstances that gave this city such an amazing collection of young, moderately paid players all fitting neatly under one salary cap. What it did, as much as anything else, was allow the stars to struggle occasionally, a luxury that does not exist this season.
With 18 days until the trade deadline, we can always hope for another trade. The one Wednesday that sent winger Jack Skille to Florida in a five-player deal that brought versatile forward Michael Frolik to Chicago, was an upgrade in skill level, said Olcyzk.
Goaltending? Don't waste energy worrying about it.
"Goaltending has been the least of this team's problems, period," Olczyk agreed. "People who are insinuating that goaltending is the issue are not following this team or it's just the easiest thing to do. Have there been some bad goals? Yes. Have there been some games where goaltenders have not played well? Yes. But where among 29 other teams are you going to find one where everybody is just so pleased with their goaltending? Goaltending is not an issue here."
Nope, if the Hawks are going to make a run and make the playoffs -- a stunning and disconcerting "if," regardless of the retooling -- it will be because of, and not in spite of, the veterans who are now actually hearing boos at the United Center.
In their defense, the defense of a title offers a mixed bag of challenges that no one can quite anticipate until they have gone through it.
"Any time the Blackhawks come to town, it's exciting, there's energy, it's an event," Olczyk observed. "And when you're in the middle of a road trip and you're in certain markets, you're going to get the very best because of the mood and anticipation of having the Stanley cup champions in the building and everything that goes into that."
But defense of a title also means taking advantage of that unique experience by carrying over at least some of the survival instinct that you learned.
This weekend, the Hawks will be confronted with it again with back-to-back road games against Dallas and Phoenix, two teams ahead of them in the conference standings and similarly eager for points.
The motivation doesn't get any simpler than that.Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.