Sunday, March 28, 2010

Back to Basics?

What makes tonight's Blackhawks vs. Blue Jackets game so disappointing is not simply that the Columbus team handed the Hawks the worst loss within the last two seasons. It's made worse that one of the worst-ranked teams in the entire NHL gave one of the best teams two losses in a row, in less than a week.

Can't blame tonight fully on the goalie. Niemi was looking fine; and I think he would've had to have been Superman to see that third goal coming through all the bodies it passed en route. The Hawks might not have even had that first goal if the opposing team hadn't knocked it into their own net, for crying out loud.

This just isn't the same team that was smokin' its way through the month leading up to the Olympics. What happened during those two Olympic weeks that shook the team up this much?

Players, coaches, reporters, bloggers and fans alike can debate back and forth about what's wrong on any given night. This night it's a weak offense; that night it's too many hurt players on the bench; a few days later it's shoddy defense.

But here's what I'm seeing as a fan, sitting up in the 300s at a game or watching it at home on TV: a lot of sloppy stick work, where one of the players makes a pass, and the receiver bobbles the play, or manages to lose it under their own feet, or just isn't getting there in time. Hit or miss about closing in for rebounds. Defense maybe - or maybe not - being there in time to help keep the puck out of the crease. And what teams to be a Blackhawks trademark - giant, cross-rink passes that have been readily grabbed by the opposing team.

Seeing it all shake out on Tuesday night into a sloppy, horrifying mess just over-emphasized it all, because when the Hawks play tight, wow, they can take your breath away. But when they play bad, then they have to fight hard for every point, be the end result win or lose.

It's clear tonight that while the Columbus Blue Jackets have already lost any chance of being in the playoffs, they were still here to play hockey, and to make it as rough as possible for any remaining opponents. Their goalie, 21-year-old Steve Mason, has clearly found his groove, and will be a formidable threat next season - and for the rest of this one.

I'm not a coach. I can't imagine what's going through Coach Q's head, except perhaps feeling disgust that the team that everybody thought was going to steamroll their way to a Stanley Cup is falling apart on the final approach to the playoffs. And you know what, I hate to every suggest it, but maybe practices from here on out need to be a return to basics, a little end-of-season boot camp, remind the players. Because any athlete will tell you that if you have the basics nailed, the rest of the game will follow.

A month ago, I would've stood by my call to see the Blackhawks go all the way this year. Right now, I'm thinking that the final two are going to shake out to be the Capitals vs. the Coyotes. (Or maybe San Jose.)

The Capitals clinched the Eastern Division tonight. The Western division is still up for grabs. It's not entirely out of the Blackhawks' reach, but they're really going to have to bust their butts to earn it - and they've only got eight games left, five of which are on the road.

I still have faith. I think the Men of Four Feathers can go far in the playoffs - maybe even still go all the way - but they've got to focus, play smart, and find within themselves whatever motivated them six weeks ago.

Here's hoping they do.

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