Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons from the past week, and hope looking forward for the Blackhawks

Wednesday night should've been a victory. Not an easy one, perhaps, because the Devils have shown that they can play with 2/3 of their roster against a team like the Penguins and not be beaten into submission. But it should've been a victory nonetheless; all the signs pointed to it being as such.

The Devils were coming into the United Center at the end of a 5-game road trip and on a losing season that had seen just three wins: an October 13 OT win vs Buffalo; an October 21 win against Montreal; and the October 29 win against Anaheim. The team is missing their top forward and top D-man, been dealing with one injury after another, and add to that the burdens of their own salary cap issues and the $100-million man wreaking havoc on the nightly roster has seen the team limping its way through the first month of the season. Through the first 13 games of the season, the Devils had eked out just an average 1.54 goals per game (they've been shut out once, and scored only 1 goal six times).

In other words, a good rousing, butt-kicking first period should've given plenty of momentum to carry the Blackhawks to a victory. Even with the inconsistent play that has plagued the team for the past month, this should've been the kind of situation that wasn't necessarily a "gimme", but certainly didn't look like it was set up to just hand the worst team in the league two free points.

Of course, the Hawks looked so good in Minnesota last Saturday that it was easy to believe that the team was finally starting to click. They pickpocketed the Wild left and right, owned the Minnesota zone, and showed the prolonged domination that made last season so exciting.

Monday's game against New York could've/should've been a win, too; they outshot the Rangers by a 5-3 margin. But it was another case of couldn't get it done, which has been a little too common this fall for most Blackhawks' fans liking.

Wednesday's game against the Devils started out sluggishly. Perhaps the Blackhawks were a victim of thinking - expecting - that they would just roll right over the Devils. Unfortunately, this is something we have seen all too frequently last season: the Hawks have opened a game with lackluster play and then scrambled to catch up. Sometimes they've won and sometimes they lost, but the lament heard repeatedly was "play 60".  The fans said it, the coach said it, the players said it.

The problem is that the Blackhawks didn't play 60, not every game, not even through the playoffs, and they still walked off with the Stanley Cup. 

So maybe, somewhere deep in the unconscious, is the thought of, "Well, it managed to work last year..."

It's not last year anymore, though, and this isn't last year's squad.

The guys who are showing up and appearing to make the most effort - even if they're a bit sloppy about it - aren't all the star players. Sure, you have Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, bright stars in the dark nights. But you also have Jake Dowell, willingly grinding away every night with grit and determination. You have Viktor Stalberg storming the net in a flash of speed. Even Nick Boynton, who has been slammed for some poorly-timed penalties and stick handling, should at least be recognized for his effort, turning into this year's Brent Sopel, with the second highest tally in the league for blocked shots. You have Rockford call ups, giving it their all each night they're granted play, in the effort to impress enough to stay up with the show.

You also have Patrick Kane, who seems to have left his "A" game on a tour bus this summer, and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who's played lost without his usual defensive partner. You have John Scott, who nobody can seem to figure out what, exactly, he's doing on the ice, because it isn't blocking and it isn't fighting. Even minus his absences from injury, Dave Bolland has been nowhere near what his play was last season. Jonathan Toews has been making a lot of effort, but aside from his league-leading faceoff wins (196 at 58.3%) and being second in the league for takeaways (18), has had a lackluster opening month. Even Duncan Keith, the team's ironman, is showing the strain of the workload - his giveaways are worst in the league (23) although he has 17 takeaways (tied for 3rd in league) to balance that out.

Watching training camp was enough to give hope to the new season. The team is loaded with talent. The new guys looked like they had been around the veteran players before. Even those guys who ended up being shipped off to Rockford looked pretty exciting.

The returning players from last season's team are tired of talking about the Cup, but now the whispers of a Cup hangover have become more strongly voiced. The team had a shorter summer off and it was busy and exciting. The new guys have to come into town and hear ad naseum about what an awesome team last season's squad was, and try to live up to that.

As a whole, they could be forgiven for wishing it were all so easy as flipping a switch or the raising of a banner to the rafters that marked a clean-cut change between two seasons; that people would stop talking about last year and reminding them that they're defending champions. They're no doubt proud to be that; but even the best praise in the world becomes tiresome when repeatedly heaped upon you.

The Hawks lost three top players to extended injuries within the first month. This has clearly hurt their game, but there's a lot of inconsistencies across the lineup.

Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times compiled these stats today, as an illustration of how mind-blowingly erratic the season has been thus far:
• The Hawks have a .333 winning percentage when trailing first, but only a .556 winning percentage when scoring first.
 • When the Hawks outshoot their opponent, they are 2-4; when the Hawks have been outshot, they're 5-3-1.
• As a team at the United Center, they're minus-8; on the road, they're even.
• Leading after the first period, the Hawks are 2-2; leading after the second, they're 5-2.
• In one-goal games, the Hawks are 4-4-1.
• The Hawks have allowed 32 goals at even strength while scoring just 26.
• As of Thursday, the Hawks had the NHL's third-best power play, converting 25% of the time.

So, what's going on with the team? Why so much struggle and inconsistency?

It's easy to blame it on "Cup hangover", but there's more to it. Coach Quenneville has been juggling the lines (no surprise there), working to find chemistry and see who works together well.  Training camp is only a couple of short weeks before it rolls into preseason games and then the primary season, so with so much turnover on the team, it's inevitable that the chemistry is not there right off the bat.

Part of it, too, is for the players to be learning each others' styles and rhythm of play. You see it happening with bad plays, but you also see them learning when things happen like one of the players makes a rush down the ice, then checks to see where the rest of the team is and waits for them to catch up. Sometimes, those players need to just throw it on the net. Maybe it'll go in and maybe it'll be a rebound, but you're never going to score by only holding on to the puck and shooting when the odds are in your favor.

The team is loaded with talent - yes, even the guys who are busy riding the Rockford Express or filling out the fourth line have plenty. They wouldn't be in Chicago otherwise.  But talent alone can't win the games, although one talented player making extra effort can certainly turn the tide, as witnessed with Marian Hossa making game-momentum-changing efforts in some of the games before his injury.

Based on post-practice interviews, Coach Q has sat the team down for talks in the past couple of days. Fans: Quenneville is to be trusted; he's worked magic with this team for the past couple of years and the fanbase needs more faith that he can do it again.

While I wouldn't call Jonathan Toews "relaxed" in the post-practice interviews today, he was at least smiling at times, which is a vast improvement over his post-game interviews from a week ago after the Oilers game, where he grimly set his lips together and admitted he didn't want to say too much for fear of saying something he might regret. There is nobody harder on themselves on the team than Toews, who is the kind of player who doesn't like to lose, and who has clearly been incredibly frustrated by the first few weeks of play.

A day or two ago, after that loss to New Jersey, I would've thought that perhaps nothing would shake the other players out of the apparent complacency than to have Toews have a ripping, let-the-emotions out, put-some-fire-in-your-belly kind of discussion with his teammates. I don't know if Toews is the type to lead via pep talk or simply by force of example. He was frequently the last one to leave the ice during training camp or during practices. And he is always just as intense in practices as he is during games, but he also can cut up and make jokes during practices, too. The intensity is always lurking there, though - whether it's taking the extra time to work on faceoffs with one of the rookies, or shooting dozens of pucks into an empty net to perfect a shot.

Nobody on the team faces more pressure this season than Toews. He's the leader and the prime example. This year, he was showered in accolades, from a gold medal for his home country at the Olympics, to Stanley Cup silver - he had a building and a lake named for him, even. He is the most public face of the Blackhawks and it's hard to remember sometimes that he's only 22. As the type of player who is his own worst critic, there has to be no doubt that he is acutely aware of the intensity of the focus on him as the leader of this team this season, and that has got to be influencing his performance, at least a little bit.

My prediciton is for the next three weeks for the Blackhawks to be cathartic. It starts tonight and Saturday with the Atlanta roadtrip. The current Blackhawks and the ex-Hawks-turned-Thrashers are getting together for dinner; no doubt there will be far less talk about hockey, and much more about just enjoying time together as friends.

Then the Blackhawks face off against Atlanta at 7pm ET tomorrow night. There's been lots of good-natured smack talk on both sides of the ice, and the players all mean it when they say it will be a fun game. It's always fun to play with your friends, even if they're now wearing different colors on their jerseys. (Atlanta fans, if you don't sell out the Philips Center for this one, I'll be amazed.) Both teams need the points, however, so expect to see a good contest.

The Blackhawks have had some time to rest and practice this week, and that schedule repeats next week, with games on Sunday, Wednesday, and then back to back weekend contests. Hossa will be back in the mix and Bolland will possibly be ready as the team prepares for the Circus Trip.

The Circus Trip - dubbed as such because it is the annual 2-week stretch when the circus comes to the United Center, forcing the Blackhawks and the Bulls out onto the road for the duration - is going to be important this year. Landing after this rough start to the season, but with still plenty of games left in the schedule, it could not be any more timely. Last season, the team talked about how important the time on the road was for building team comraderie. Surely the Mario Kart will come out. Patrick Kane's birthday falls the night they play Calgary, so perhaps the boys will have a bit a night out in Vancouver after the Canucks game. They're going to face the Sharks the night before Thanksgiving (a game for which I have no doubt that Niemi will be in net) and then the holiday weekend is spent playing the other California teams.

Last season, the team was dominant at home, but they played pretty good on the road, too. Players late in the season were quoted as saying that they tended to play a little different on the road: less need to impress the home crowds; and more basic, simple, straightforward hockey.

The mantra for successful hockey remains the same: keep it clean and simple. Get the puck on the net. Crash and look for rebounds.

Can they remember that philosophy, and get back to basics?

Here's hoping that the men of winter can find their focus in the weeks to come. Don't hit the panic button quite yet.

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