Tuesday night the Blackhawks will welcome the Central Division-leading Stars back to Chicago. Dallas currently leads the division with 95 points, while the Hawks sit in third with 91. Both teams have just 9 games remaining on their regular season schedules this year, so tonight will go a long way in determining whether or not the Blackhawks will have a legitimate chance of still winning the division. If they wish to achieve that goal, then tonight’s game becomes a must-win.
Lately the Hawks have been in a funk, to say the least. And in all honesty, it’s nothing that should come as much of a surprise. They have become a perennial mediocre team in the month of March over the past few years. Only when the “real” games begin in April do they dial it up a few notches. That being said, however, now might be the right time to begin that dialing-up process.
Following Tuesday night’s game against Dallas, the Hawks will take off on a four-game road trip out west to Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. None of those games will be easy, and given how the Hawks have performed on the road this year (18-14-4), it would be nice if they began flipping that switch to playoff-mode beginning with Tuesday’s tilt against the Stars. If they play the way they have for the majority of the last month on the upcoming road trip, the Blackhawks could be staring at another four-game losing streak.
To get a win tonight and to begin working their way towards that “playoff mode,” here’s what the Hawks need to do:
- First off, the offense needs to start clicking again. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line was arguably the league’s best for the first four months of the season, but has since quieted down a bit. For this reason, among a few others, Joel Quenneville has begun mixing up his lines on a pretty regular basis whether in the middle of a game or heading into a game. We’ve seen Kane with Toews and Ladd while Hossa takes the second line RW spot, we’ve seen Ladd flanking Teravainen on the team’s third line, and we’ve seen a number of different combinations on the bottom two lines in recent games. All of this has been an effort to generate some offense, but it hasn’t consistently worked. At this point, I see two possible solutions moving forward. The first one is if Ladd just can’t seem to connect with 19 and 81 on the first line, move him to the third line and bump Fleischmann up to the top line. He has shown some really good skill and energy since coming to Chicago, and it may be a nice fit for everyone involved. Ladd, meanwhile, would add some really solid depth on the third line. The second option, and the one I hope prevails, is for the Blackhawks to simply wake up and “flip their switch.” We say this same thing every year, but only because it’s true every year. They are playing on auto-pilot right now, and until they begin to actually try and go all out each and every night, we’ll continue to see more mediocre performances. This team now has the depth and talent required to win a Stanley Cup thanks to the trade deadline, but until they start playing like they really want it, the losses will keep coming.
- Secondly, Quenneville needs to figure out his defensive pairings. Right now we’re seeing guys like Ehrhoff and Gustafsson rotate in and out of the lineup while only getting around ten minutes or less of ice-time per game. Meanwhile, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival are seeing their minutes increase to the high twenties despite them being arguably the two worst defensemen on the team. The bottom line is that while Q has been “resting” his top d-men as of late, he needs to start giving the appropriate minutes to the appropriate guys while at the same time figuring out who his 4-6 defensemen will be come mid-April. If it were up to me, the d-pairings would be Keith-Seabrook, Ehrhoff-Hjalmarsson, TVR-Rozsival with Gustafsson possibly taking TVR’s spot. Brent Seabrook cannot support a sub-par d-man on his pairing anymore like he maybe could have at one time. Instead, he needs a rock solid partner like Keith or Hjalmarsson. Speaking of Hjalmarsson, I like him with Ehrhoff for the fact that Ehrhoff can be a responsible defenseman, but he can also move the puck offensively better than any other d-man on the Hawks not named Keith. This pairing provides you with solid defense in Hammer, and good (not great) defense and above average offense in Ehrhoff. As for the third pairing, I say start with TVR and go to Gustafsson as soon as van Riemsdyk runs into trouble.
- The penalty kill for the Blackhawks has been awful for most of the season in case you haven’t noticed. This is partially due to Marcus Kruger’s injury, and matters only got worse when Hossa went down. Hossa is now back, and Kruger could be coming back as soon as this weekend. Their PK was 3 for 3 against Minnesota Sunday night, but the Stars will be a much stiffer test despite Seguin not being in their lineup. Now is the time to figure this thing out and start building some positive momentum heading into April. I’m not saying the penalty kill has to be perfect every single game, but allowing a powerplay goal or more each night cannot continue. Kruger’s imminent return to the lineup should go a long way in helping solve this issue.
- Surprisingly, the third period has become the Hawks’ enemy in recent weeks as opposed to years past. Take Sunday night for example when the Wild outshot the Hawks 16-7. Allowing 16 shots against in a period, let alone the third period, is not a good habit to fall into. Then when you consider that the Blackhawks are not generating many shots, it becomes a terrible scenario. There needs to be more urgency on offense and more reliability on defense shown by this team in the third period moving forward. If the Hawks are trailing entering the third period against Dallas or if they fall behind in the third, look for them to try and play with more urgency.
The Blackhawks are by no means a bad team or a team with huge concerns heading into the playoffs. There are, however, some concerns and weaknesses that need to be shored up starting now. The Hawks could really use home ice advantage in the playoffs this year as they have been very average on the road this season. The only way to earn home ice in the playoffs at this point is to start winning hockey games.
Expect the Stars to come out flying tonight as they look to unofficially eliminate the Hawks’ chances of winning the division. On the flip side, the Blackhawks know how big this game is with regards to their hopes of winning the Central, and it would be disappointing to see them come out as anything other than energized and ready to go.
*Update: Scott Darling will be in net again tonight as Crawford continues to recover from an upper-body injury.