Another disappointing outing for the Hawks

461252916_slideThe 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.

All eyes on Raanta

184164326_slidePrior to the Blackhawks’ game in Dallas on Tuesday night, Joel Quenneville revealed that Corey Crawford would miss the next 2-3 weeks with a lower body injury. That “lower body” injury is presumed to be a groin injury based on how Crawford injured himself during Sunday night’s game against Florida. What this all means is that all the weight is now on Antti Raanta’s shoulders; a guy who was playing in Rockford just a month ago only dreaming about making it to the NHL someday.

Raanta, who improved to 4-0-1 after last night’s win in Dallas, has played exactly how the Blackhawks want their backup goalie to play since bringing him up following the injury to Nikolai Khabibulin. Only now, he’s their starter for the next few weeks. In the 6 games that Raanta has appeared in (5 starts), he has posted a 2.14 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Those are very respectable numbers for a rookie. Raanta and the Hawks will need those numbers to continue as the Blackhawks are about to begin arguably their toughest stretch of the schedule this season.

Also as a result of Crawford’s injury was the promotion of Rockford goalie Kent Simpson to the NHL. He is now the Blackhawks backup goalie to Antti Raanta. Simpson, the Blackhawks second round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, has a 6-7 record in the AHL this season along with a 3.38 GAA and .900 save percentage. Those are not very good numbers by any means, even in the AHL. Obviously the Hawks were not planning on calling Simpson up to the NHL this year, and I am sure that they would prefer to use him as little as possible while he is up in Chicago.

What all of this means is that Antti Raanta is going to see a ton of playing time until Corey Crawford returns to the lineup. Raanta has proven he can get the job done in the 6 games that he has played in, and now is the time for him to really show that he belongs in the NHL. Including tonight’s game against the Flyers, the Blackhawks have 3 sets of back-to-back games over the next three weeks. Normally, Joel Quenneville doesn’t like to have the same goalie play both games of a back-to-back set, but with Kent Simpson being his second option now, Antti Raanta might not get a day off. He is about to be tested skill-wise and physically during this upcoming stretch of games.

Moving forward, the Blackhawks are really going to have to play solid defense in front of Raanta and Simpson, if he ever gets playing time. While Raanta has built some confidence recently, the best thing for him is going to be building even more confidence. The best way for the Hawks to help him achieve that is by playing strong defense in front of him and limiting their opponents scoring opportunities. Raanta even said after the Banner-Raising-2013-1600Hawks’ 6-2 win in Dallas on Tuesday that “It’s pretty nice to be a goalie on this team,” meaning that they have limited the opposition’s scoring chances and have been scoring a ton of goals themselves lately. That is usually a recipe for success, and they absolutely have to continue doing so from here on out, or at least until Crawford gets back.

The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have a very fragile goalie situation at the moment. The last thing they want is for Raanta to begin struggling and have to turn to Kent Simpson. If Antti Raanta plays well as the starter while Crawford is out, I can almost guarantee you that Nikolai Khabibulin will not play another game as a Blackhawk once he gets healthy. Based on his early season struggles before getting hurt, the Blackhawks 1306350614have zero confidence in him. Plus, Raanta was signed to someday be a goalie (backup and/or starter) on the Blackhawks. They didn’t sign him to sit in Rockford forever. If he can prove that he’s ready for the NHL in the same year that they signed him, then that’s just a bonus.

These next few weeks will say a lot about Raanta and the Blackhawks.

Late-game magic in Calgary for the Blackhawks

184164326_slideOne of the best, most improbable victories for the Blackhawks during last season’s epic 24-game point streak to start the season took place in Calgary. Ray Emery single handedly won that game for the Hawks, a game in which they had no business winning. The Flames badly outplayed the Blackhawks from start to almost the finish, but ended up allowing Marian Hossa to tie the game with under 5 seconds remaining in the third. The Blackhawks would end up winning in a shootout. Last night, the Hawks pulled off another improbable victory at the expense of the Flames in Calgary.

Unlike last season’s miracle win in northern Alberta, last night’s game was much more evenly contested. The Hawks did not play bad by any means, but they weren’t at their best either. The Flames on the other hand, they did play a very good game by their standards. They held a 1-0 lead entering the third period, and would score again just a few minutes into the third to take a 2-0 advantage. It looked as though this would be a disappointing loss for the Hawks once they went down by 2.

Then with almost 10 minutes gone in the period, Patrick Kane took a bad angled shot from Flames goalie Reto Berra’s right that deflected off a Calgary stick and went into the net. This brought the Hawks to within one and gave them some momentum, something they hadn’t really had all night.

Not even a minute later, Patrick Sharp tied the game on a redirect after a beautiful backhand pass from Hossa through the slot. Just like that, the game was tied and the Flames and their fans were almost in shock.

From that point on, the ice really seemed to open up and the pace of the game took off.

1306350614Following a Calgary icing with about 25 seconds left, Andrew Shaw won the offensive zone draw to Berra’s left. The puck found its way back to Niklas Hjalmarsson who fired a shot toward the net that got blocked. The puck then bounced right to Patrick Kane who spun to his left and fired home a nice backhander that beat Berra with 18 seconds left in the game. Once again, the Hawks had pulled off a semi-miracle on the Flames home ice. The final 18 seconds ran off the clock after the ensuing faceoff, and the Hawks won the game 3-2.

I guess there’s just something about Calgary that makes the Blackhawks do incredible things late in games.

So, here’s what I saw last night:

  • Antti Raanta made his first career start and earned his first career victory while making 20 saves. He played a solid game and came up with some big stops at key moments to keep the game close. This was a great sign for the Hawks that he played well. Hopefully that continues moving forward. 
  • Kris Versteeg was all over the ice last night. He had a number of quality scoring chances, but couldn’t find the back of the net. His versatility has really shown since coming back to the Hawks a couple weeks ago. Quenneville hasn’t hesitated to move Versteeg from the third line, to the second line, and vise versa. His goals will come with time.
  • Duncan Keith is playing out of his mind right now. He is definitely deserving of all the Norris Trophy talk he is receiving.
  • Patrick Kane now has a point in 12 straight games, making this the longest such streak of his career. He appears to have the “I’ll do whatever I want, when I want” attitude right now, which is a bad thing for the rest of the league.

The Hawks have now won 4 straight games on this road trip after losing the first game in Colorado. They also now lead the NHL in points with 40, although they’ve played a couple more games than teams like St. Louis who are right behind them in the standings. The Hawks will finish this 7-game trip with games in Dallas and Phoenix on Friday and Saturday night, respectively.

I really like how the Blackhawks are playing right now, even without Bryan Bickell in the mike-madduxlineup. When he comes back, I’d personally like to see him bump either Handzus or Bollig out of the lineup. Handzus will not play every game because of his health and age, but theoretically Bollig could. My problem with Bollig is that he doesn’t really do a whole lot that warrants him being in the lineup every game like he currently is. You can’t tell me that there are no better hockey players in Rockford than Bollig who could be playing on the Hawks’ fourth line. When Bickell comes back, I’d be fine if Bollig and Handzus platooned that last spot on the fourth line, but I don’t want to see Bollig continue to play every night. He’s just not that good.

That’s all for now.