Sidney Brown brings his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Blackhawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
The calendar turns to April this week and thus the NHL begins its turn into the final stretch of the regular season….DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME!
At fifth place and fading in the Western Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks would be happy with merely placing in a horse race nowadays, let alone winning. The Hawks’ record stands at 42-19-15 (99 points), trailing Colorado and St. Louis in the Central Division race and that Colorado squad also holds home ice advantage in a projected 4-5 first round match-up with the Hawks. Bringing home the Hawks’ down-trending play as of late is their 4-6-1 record in their last 11 games and their 1-4-1 mark in their last six road games.
So just what is the problem with these guys? Why aren’t the Hawks coming anywhere close to playing their best hockey at this urgent time of the season?
An obvious answer is that Patrick Kane is out of the lineup until the start of the playoffs at least, but it’s not that simple folks. The major problems for the Hawks at this point boil down to a lack of focus, especially on defense and not playing full 60-minute game. The Hawks have given up 12 goals during their current three-game losing streak and through simple observation you can see that most of these goals are helped by defenders being out of position, constantly a step too late chasing opponents with the puck and making the goalies work extra hard to keep Chicago in games.
I’ve yet to panic, but these struggles must be turned around in time for the playoffs. Excellent goal tending is a must in any successful playoff run but Corey Crawford can not be expected to bail out the team time after time if they expect to go far again. The back lines, Crawford’s last lines of defense — Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy and others — must play their position with discipline, keep from turning the puck over in their own zone and not let the opposition’s skaters to roam past on their way to the net.
Keep the ‘On’ Switch On
Another concern that has caught my attention is the feeling that the Hawks are waiting for the regular season to end and they can just “turn on” the switch once the playoffs start. I don’t buy that theory one bit.
I believe in playing your best going into the second season. Yes, the Hawks have battled injuries all season, and Sunday added to that fire with the lower body injury suffered by Jonathan Toews against Pittsburgh, but the team’s effort hasn’t matched the challenges set upon them.
A good comparison exists between the two defending champions in the NHL and the NBA. The Hawks’ champion counterpart, the Miami Heat, are in the process of trying to 3-peat as NBA champions but like the Hawks they have struggled with a motivated upstart in their own conference (Indiana Pacers) who have out-played them in the regular season. Also like the Hawks, the Heat have had to deal cautiously with a key piece (Dwayne Wade) who has to sit out often due to injury. In the Hawks’ case that key player has jumped around from Crawford to Marian Hossa to Kane now and possibly Toews.
Observers often peg the the Heat as doing just enough to win in the regular season while fortifying itself for the playoffs where they turn it up and play up to their natural championship level. In the last two years, the Heat have been correct in doing this but the years and the League may have caught up with them, we shall see.
As far as the Hawks, they are fatigued, but the years shouldn’t be an issue with this altogether young team and neither should the League catching up for that matter — this year’s lulls are more about focus and a lack of playing with consistency. Last year can never be banked on. If you decide to turn the “on switch” come playoff time and expect things to go your way just because they have once or twice before, you’re playing a dangerous game. You’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions, you’re already a big target, and if you give a team confidence in a playoff series, you will soon be watching the rest of the playoffs from the couch. Six games are left in the regular season and a wake-up call is in order. The time is now.
To the entire Chicago Blackhawks organization for offering a moment of silence in memory of longtime beat writer Tim Sassone before Tuesday’s home game against the Dallas Stars, Sassone passed away earlier that day. Sassone’s career covering the Hawks began for Chicago suburban newspaper the Daily Herald in 1988 and his writing has reached fans for more than 25 years.
As I started to watch the game of hockey, I also began to gleam ideas on local sports radio and Sassone was a constant presence talking about the Hawks whether they were great or mostly irrelevant. Either way, Sassone offered a lot of knowledge about the team and the NHL. After suffering a stroke and taking much-needed time off, Sassone came back to the beat last season in time to watch the Hawks win their second Stanley Cup in four years.
In 2007, Sassone was nominated as a media finalist for the Hockey Hall Of Fame award and was a finalist for this year’s Peter Lisagor contest for sports writing, of which he was a previous winner. Sassone’s work was respected throughout the hockey world and this gem of a journalist should be remembered for his hard work and his knowledge of the Hawks. He will be missed.
The Week Ahead
Thur., April 3 — vs. Minnesota, 7 PM; Fri., April 4 — at Columbus, 6 PM; Sun., April 6 — St. Louis, 11:30 AM. (All times Central)
Team Leaders: Goals — Patrick Sharp (31); Assists — Duncan Keith (51); Points — Sharp (72); Goals Against Average — Corey Crawford (2.22); Penalty Minutes — Brandon Bollig (85).
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