Remarkably, the Blackhawks went on one of their better runs of the season following the injury to Patrick Kane in late February. They went 7-1-1 in the next nine games after losing Kane for the remainder of the regular season, beating a couple of the league’s better teams during the process. Rather than bringing the team morale down, Kane’s injury almost seemed to have reignited the Hawks. While losing arguably the team’s best player is never wished upon by anyone, Kane’s injury did allow the Hawks to land Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timmonen. Those acquisitions appeared to restore the sometimes vacant energy and confidence from the Blackhawks. Now, however, the team is searching for answers after four straight poor outings and going 1-3-0 in that stretch.
Ever since defeating the Rangers 1-0 at Madison Square Garden on March 18th, the Blackhawks have been outplayed in every game they’ve competed in. In Dallas, they were rocked 4-0. In Carolina they won 3-1, but were the worse of the two teams over the final two periods of play. The Hurricanes ended up out-shooting the Hawks 44-25 in the game. From Raleigh, the Blackhawks went into Philadelphia and lost 4-1. Then, Friday night, the Hawks returned home to face the Blue Jackets and ended up on the losing side of a 5-2 game. All four of those games were against teams who are not in a playoff position.
During this rough stretch, and really since Kane went down, the Blackhawks have struggled offensively. Since Kane’ injury, the team has averaged just over two goals per game, which is not good enough for a team fighting for a top three finish in their division. The Hawks have lacked puck possession recently, an area in which Kane may be the best in the NHL, and they have had a real tough time suppressing their shots against. When you don’t have the puck as much as you’re used to, you can expect your shots against average to rise.
While the Hawks did continue to win games in the immediate aftermath of Kane’s injury, their offense was at times not as good as the scores may have indicated. As big a reason as any as to why the team kept winning without Kane was their goaltending. Corey Crawford and Scott Darling (he recorded a 1-0 shutout at the Rangers) were playing out of this world up until recently. This somewhat covered up the fact that the Blackhawks were being outplayed by their opponents with more regularity. Just take their win in Carolina as an example of that. Now, the goaltending has seemingly come back to reality. It hasn’t been bad, but it also hasn’t been what it was over the first few weeks of March. With the Blackhawks still struggling to score and the goaltending not performing at the level that it had been, we’re seeing more losses.
The easiest solution to all of this is to simply say that the Blackhawks need to get better offensively. The question is how do they do that?
Well for one, I think the forward lines need some consistency. Blackhawks players have flat out stated that they like having some consistency with the lines. It’s tough for players to be playing with new linemates every game. This doesn’t allow them to build chemistry or familiarity with one another. While the natural reaction by Quenneville may be to switch up the lines when the team isn’t playing well, it may pay off in the long run to just stick with them. If he wants to switch them up for the second half of game in which they’re trailing, fine, but then go back to the original lines to start the next game. I think the best lines for this team are Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Teravainen, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Nordstrom. It would certainly help out A LOT if Versteeg and Bickell broke out of their current slumps and did something to contribute to the team.
Secondly, for the Hawks to become a better offensive team, or to at least play up to their potential, they need to simplify their game. They need to take what’s being given to them by the opposition, make the smart, simple plays, and go from there. Lately they have been trying to do too much individually. Guys will get the puck and try and dangle their way out of the defensive zone or into the offensive zone, thus leading to turnovers more often than not. They have gotten away from playing that “north-south” game as Eddie Olczyk calls it. If the Blackhawks can get back to that style of play, they should start to see some better results.
Lastly, shoot the puck. The Hawks seem to be one of the most reluctant teams in the league at shooting the puck (I’m looking at you Keith). They’d often rather attempt to complete a highlight reel pass instead of shooting when they have the chance. Duncan Keith, as I just mentioned, is one of the team’s biggest culprits in this regard. I can’t even begin to list the number of times in which he’s left with a good shooting lane, but instead tries to make a slap-pass through traffic to someone standing beside the net. I will admit that this does work maybe once in 50 attempts, but that’s not good enough. Somehow though, Keith happens to rank third in the league in shot attempts during 5 on 5 play. You just wouldn’t guess that. Putting that stat aside, my point still stands.
With Kane out of the lineup until at least mid to late May, the Hawks have got to start finding ways to compensate for his absence. They were getting by without him for a couple of weeks due in large part to their goaltending and team defense, but now those have started to slip due to their lack of puck possession. If the Blackhawks can get back to the basics and do the things I just went over, among others, their offense and time of possession should see a rise in production.
This team has too much talent to be struggling this much at scoring goals. There is no denying the fact, however, that Versteeg and Bickell must step up their games and give quality minutes for this team to regain its depth and advantage in play. Those two players cannot be overlooked.