Chicago Blackhawks: Eyes On The Prize

EDITOR’S NOTE: The influx of hockey-writing talent continues, as we warmly welcome to the fold Michael Devine.  Michael, the brother of current Ice Nation author Ger, is an experienced writer who also lends his considerable talents to the brilliant Chicago Blackhawks blogs Cheer The Anthem and III Communication.  Like his younger brother, Michael of course hails from Ireland, but unlike Ger is a Blackhawks fan through and through.  He will be providing us, and you, with updates and opinions on the Hawks and on the NHL as a whole, and we are excited to have him as part of the team.

From the perspective of teams either already eliminated from contention, or struggling desperately for the final Wild Card slots, this will seem like “First World Problems”.  However, there is no denying that the Chicago Blackhawks are experiencing some turbulence in the closing stages of the season.

Since the Olympic break the Hawks have gone 6-5-1 and have veered wildly from game to game: trouncing St Louis one night then being shut out by Nashville a few days later. At this point the Blues are disappearing over the horizon with the Division title and the Home ice it confers. The Presidents Trophy is out of the question. Chicago’s Playoff place is not in doubt, barring a total collapse: as of this writing 12 points separate the Hawks from 4th place Minnesota. It appears that the remainder of the regular season will be spent battling with First Round opponents Colorado for 2nd in the Division and Home ice.

Of course, there are some people already jostling for position on the ledge, eager to write off the Cup defence as doomed. They point out the Hawks putrid record against the rest of the Central Division (10-12-3), the lost Season Series to the Blues and the Avs, the stuttering powerplay and the large number of OT and SO losses. (Oh, and the goaltending. Always with the goaltending).

Back-To-Back Hopefuls

More rational fans can see that it’s not quite as cut & dried as that. There is no reason to think that the Hawks won’t be a powerhouse in the Postseason. There are flaws, yes, and some problems that need addressing, but their attempt to be the first team to win back-to-back Cups in the Cap era is still very much alive. The Hawks stumbled through the final weeks of the 2010 season like drunks and that worked out alright in the end, if you recall.

So, let’s take a look at some possible reasons why the Blackhawks are struggling towards the finish line

1) They’re tired.

I’m not sure how much credence I hold for this train of thought. For sure, they had a short off-season and sent ten players to Sochi but the Boston Bruins don’t exactly seem to be feeling the ill-effects right now, do they? I haven’t seen the sort of exhaustion that was all too apparent as a battered lineup limped into the Playoffs in 2011. Older players like Marian Hossa and Michals Handzus and Roszival have been rotated, rested and generally well handled.

If anything, it’s possible that they’ve lost some focus, are perhaps even bored at this stage of the season. Note that they have no trouble bringing their A game against the likes of Detroit and St Louis, but struggle with Buffalo and Carolina.

2) They’re hurt.

Ok, this is more plausible: Patrick Kane is out for the remainder of the Regular Season, Bryan Bickell and Roszival are still out and Brandon Saad has just returned from an “Upper Body injury” that we can assume was a concussion. (Somewhere out there Wings and Pens fans are shaking their heads at me). This has led to deployment being jumbled around even more so than Coach Quenneville’s usual line blending.

Again though, this is not nearly as bad as 2011 where Toews missed significant time with a concussion and clearly rushed back too early for the Playoffs. The Hawks have been relatively lucky with their health over the past two seasons, so instability in the lineup is not something they’re all that familiar with.

3) The Dreaded 2C Question

Ah, yes. Once again the Hawks are headed to the Playoffs without a recognised 2nd Line Center. It has, of course, been ever thus since Patrick Sharp moved to Wing after the 2010 Cup. Last year Michal Handzus surprised everyone by filling in competently in that role. This year, thus far, the only thing he has been is a millstone around Patrick Kane’s neck (fun fact: it wasn’t until last week that Kane scored at 5v5 with Handzus on the ice for the first time this season). Ben Smith is currently filling that position but he’s not really suited to it. Kane has been struggling lately because he seems to be trying to create everything on his line by himself.

There is a lot of excitement in the fan-base about red-hot Finnish prospect Teuvo Teravainen (who will likely make his debut against Dallas on Tuesday) but expecting a 170lb 20 year-old who has only played two preseason games at NHL level to suddenly solve all their problems… well, it’s fun to speculate, but probably not, or at least not yet.

4) They’re bad

Don’t be silly.

5) It’s the roster and the lineup

There’s an element of truth here.. Stan Bowman appears to have made a couple of very uncharacteristic errors in judgement this season: most notably acquiring Kris Versteeg from florida (but, lets be honest, we all thought Bowman had fleeced Dale Tallon when it happened.. it’s hardly his fault that Versteeg has been a bust) and, odder still, the Deadline signing of David Rundblad days after announcing that the Hawks were no longer going to carry eight defensemen on the roster.

This handcuffed Chicago in terms of Cap space and has necessitated Kane going on LTIR to free up the space to bring Jeremy Morin and Teravainen into the side. Coach Quenneville has made some of his usual odd personnel choices, benching players like Morin, Bryan Bickell and Peter Regin for no obvious reason, leading to extra work for the other forwards.

Of course there’s also his idea that Sheldon Brookbank can play on the Wing. The way the Hawks lines are set up now has made them top-heavy and the secondary scoring that used to be their most lethal weapon has been far harder to come by this year.

Just Roll With It

In the end, there are elements of truth in all of these reasons. It’s also hard, when you’re in the bubble that is the Hawks fan-base (where the comings and goings of 4th Liners like Brandon Bollig can eat up whole days with furious debate!), to step back and get some perspective. Chicago are still among the favourites to win the Cup, still a formidable team and still one that no other team wants to play against.

The Cup defence is very much ongoing and I expect to see a remarkable improvement by the time the 1st Round begins.  Until then, we’ll have to just accept the ups and downs as the season draws to an end.

Follow Michael on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk!

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