Desert dogs chomp the Blackhawks
The last time the Blackhawks got shut out six times in a single season was 2006-07. You know, the year they went 31-42-9 with Khabibulin, Boucher & Lalime rotating in goal in a season that went 20-43-11-8.
As horrible as the 2010-2011 was, they were only shut out 4 times, and the first one wasn't until December 3rd. This season, the Hawks had been shut out three times by November 23rd - and still haven't registered one of their own.
Entering Saturday's game, the Blackhawks were 1-1-1 vs. the Coyotes and finish out the series 1-2-1. They have now dropped eight straight and have taken just one point since their January 20th win vs. the Panthers. Fortunately for the Blackhawks, they stockpiled enough points early in the season that they haven't dropped out of the playoff picture - yet - but they continue to edge in that direction. A couple weeks ago, Chicago sat atop the league for points; they've dropped to 6th in the West (11th in the league), and if bubble teams have a stronger finish than the Blackhawks, there's a very real chance that once again, it could come down to game 82.
There's no answers forthcoming from the Blackhawks, either; they seem just as baffled by their inability to put one away as the fans are. There's no doubt that Chicago's goaltending has struggled, but so, too, has their offensive punch. The defense kills all the PKs one night and lets in three the next. They can play a period where they outshoot the opposition 17-3 and yet have the next look like a jangled mess.
The past few games have been "must-wins". But after dropping Friday night's game to the Sharks 5-3, the Blackhawks took the ice on Saturday looking disjointed. Ex-Blackhawk Radim Vrbata opened the scoring at 3:14 into the game, wrapping around the net and bouncing in a puck off Sami Lepisto's skate. Lepisto was making a move to compensate for Ray Emery, who couldn't move post-to-post quickly enough, but it ended up inadvertently costing the Blackhawks a goal.
Rookie defenseman Dylan Olsen then was beat on a 2-on-1 at the 5:58 mark, and just like that, Chicago was down 0-2 just six minutes into the game.
It took most of the first for the Blackhawks to settle down, but when they finally started to show some potential momentum, a collision between Brendan Morrison and Kyle Chipchura sent Morrison to the box for an interference penalty. Although the Blackhawks outshot the Coyotes 28-14 in the last two periods, they simply couldn't solve Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, who registered his 14th career shutout.
At this point, the questions are inevitable. Why isn't the team responding to their coaching? This slump has gone on for three weeks; the team has spent plenty of "chalk talk" time and yet nothing has improved. Their power play continues to be unproductive, the penalty kill is too strongly reminiscent of November, and their offensive powerhouses can't score.
A few points to look at from the past month:
- Nick Leddy has not done well on the penalty kill, yet they continue to play him in that role. He saw zero time on the PK on Saturday.
- It's not surprising that Dylan Olsen has looked comfortable with Duncan Keith; they spent time playing together during training camp. In another season or two, Olsen will be a beast, another Seabrook-in-the-making. In the meantime, he's still a rookie, and he's not the solution the Blackhawks need during the stretch run. One of his plays on Friday night, which obviously was meant to be a clear, instead ended up sweeping the puck back towards the Blackhawks net, and caught Corey Crawford five-hole.
- Sami Lepistö has been incredibly patient this season; among the Blackhawks defensemen, he has dressed the least, just 13 games. On Friday night in San Jose, he had a solid game which included his first point of the year. On Saturday, despite an overall good effort, his attempt to bail out the goalie instead ended up with a goal. You have to feel bad for both Olsen and Lepistö after they both put in own-net goals, but it's not like it's the first time a Blackhawks player scored on their own goal. (Brent Seabrook has done it, too ... but fan memories are short.)
- Jonathan Toews continues to be manhandled by other teams this season, very noticeably so by the Sharks last night. It took several shifts on Friday before the coaches made the necessary adjustments and got Jamal Mayers and Dylan Olsen - both willing fighters - onto the ice at the same time as Toews. Chicago's offseason depth additions were supposed to add grit and toughness to the team, but with Daniel Carcillo's season over and Steve Montador injured, it leaves the team shorthanded on sandpaper. The team cannot afford to continue dressing John Scott, especially while on a losing streak, despite this.
- Duncan Keith cannot continue to play 27+ minutes a game. We saw last year that it didn't really help the team for him to be pushed to 28-30 minutes/game, and it shows that the coach(es) are not trusting enough in the 5th-8th defensemen. If you're the coach of this team and cannot get your defensemen to a point where ice time can be more evenly spread amongst all three pairings (and at least get the third pairing up into 14-16 TOI/game), something needs to be corrected asap. After edging close to 28-29 minutes/game earlier in the season, Keith is currently at 26:45. Last season he averaged 26:53/game. This kind of play is going to continue to take a toll on Keith.
- Speaking of Toews, both he and Patrick Sharp recently were out for injuries. As the team continues to struggle, and their offense has dried up, it's not surprising that questions swirl whether both are fully healed.
- The power play has been 0 for the past 16. It's time to shake up the players on the ice for the PP units, because they're not being productive. Earlier in the season, this resulted in players like Steve Montador being slotted into the PP - and voila, the power play became productive for a while. It's boggling that on a team that has its lines treated like Yahtzee dice and is on a bad losing streak isn't willing to take risks on the PP. At this point, the PP can't get much worse (unless it starts giving up short-handed goals).
There is zero doubt that the potential is definitely there for something major to come down the pike this week when it comes to the Blackhawks, whether it's a coaching change (head coach or assistant coach) or a major trade. The question is: what is most likely to happen? And when?
Coach Quenneville has absorbed as much blame as possible this season. Assistant coaches are not available for post-game interviews, and the basic message from Q remains that "the buck stops here", that he is ultimately responsible. Likewise, he stands behind his players. Rumors swirl around the state of the locker room; some of the top players have openly stated their current frustration with the losing streak.
The Blackhawks desperately need a win, and their season gets no easier in the days ahead. They face the Nashville Predators - who are coming in off a 3-game losing streak including two shootout losses - on Tuesday. After that, they'll face Presidents'-Trophy-candidate NY Rangers, before Saturday's game vs. Columbus. They'll play their first home game since January 24th on Sunday versus the white-hot Blues, and it's hard to imagine that they will not have broken their streak by then.
In the meantime, Saturday's game is another to put behind them, and the Blackhawks must continue to look for answers as they continue to fight for points in the home stretch of this season.