The Blackhawks had been rolling along for the past month and half up until the Winter Classic came along. Over their past five games, including the Classic, the Hawks are just 2-3-0 and seem to be struggling to find the same energy that they had been playing with since late November. Call it the “dog days” of the season or whatever you wish, but the fact of the matter is that you cannot afford to lose many games right now as a member of the Central Division or Western Conference. The competition is too good, and the standings are too close.
Over this recent stretch of games for the Hawks, they have looked out of sync. Take last night’s game in Edmonton for example. I’d say that for about two thirds of that game, it was a legitimate challenge for them to complete two passes in a row. Getting through the neutral zone with the puck proved to be as big a challenge for the Hawks, if not even a bigger one. On more than one occasion, the puck carrier for the Hawks and one of their linemates collided at center ice, causing either a turnover or a broken rush.
Maybe even more troubling, and what may very well be responsible for the way they’ve been playing lately, is the fact that the Blackhawks focus doesn’t seem to be all there at the moment. In Minnesota on Thursday night and last night against the Oilers, it appeared as though the Hawks were simply going through the motions (unless their name was Brandon Saad or Marian Hossa). Granted they found a way to beat the Wild, but they couldn’t expect to have that same luck for a second straight game. As a result of their lack of focus and energy in Edmonton, they made the league’s worst team look like an above average defensive team. There is no way that the Oilers should have held the Hawks to just 21 shots in the game. No way. Yes the Blackhawks were playing in their second game of a back-to-back, but that’s still no excuse. A team with this much talent, this much experience, and this much leadership should not continue to turn in weak efforts like this, especially when they know that they can’t afford to lose many games while playing in the Central Division.
Aside from their effort, or lack thereof, the goaltending has not been as good during this recent stretch as it was for most of the first half of the season. Corey Crawford was having an outstanding year up until he decided to take in a concert and *trip* on the steps, leading to a broken foot. Since returning from that injury, he’s let in some uncharacteristically weak goals and has struggled to allow fewer than two per game. In his defense, he did just turn in an outstanding performance against the Wild the other night in a win that Joel Quenneville labeled a “goalie win.” Crawford got the night off against the Oilers last night, so hopefully he’ll build off his last outing moving forward.
Antti Raanta has had better days too. We’ve seen him go from having a great season to something reminiscent of what we saw from him last spring. His rebound control has been bad, and he’s beginning to let in some soft goals. He even said himself that his performance against the Oilers last night was “one of the worst games of [his] NHL career.” Credit him for recognizing and acknowledging the fact that he needs to be better, but the fact remains that he does need to be better.
Despite this disappointing stretch for the Blackhawks, there’s no need to get too concerned right now. As I’ve said before, this team is too experienced and has great leaders and great coaches that won’t let this trend of weak play continue. I’m not saying they’ll turn it around next game or even the next, but they know just as we do that they need to win on almost a nightly basis to keep pace with the teams in their own division. When the going gets tough and the importance of the games increase, the Blackhawks have almost always risen to the challenge. I expect nothing different from this year’s team.