Hawks encountering problems in new year
The honeymoon is officially over for the Chicago Blackhawks.
It was great while it lasted, but gone are the days when the Hawks could score 6 goals or more every night, as they did in three straight games in December. As Chicago approaches the Olympic break just over halfway through the season, they’re starting to look like a mediocre hockey club at best. A delayed Stanley Cup hangover apparently has struck, and created problems that have been made particularly apparent in January:
The Extra Point: Since the new year, the Hawks have gone to extra time in six games, emerging victorious just once (SO win against the Bruins.) Their overall record in OT/SO games this season is 5-12, meaning that they’ve left an extra 12 points on the table. To put that in perspective, they need five points to tie Anaheim for first in the West. Just as concerning, in 5 of the 6 games that went to extra time, the Hawks scored three or fewer goals. For a team that is built to be a high-flying offensive force, it's no longer acceptable to say 'At least we got a point', and while the shootout is not used for playoffs, the inability to finish off games in OT is a concern that could carry into the postseason.
The PK: The Hawks have struggled on the penalty kill for the majority of this season, so this problem is nothing new. While ranked 27th overall in the league, they’ve been perfect the last 4 games, killing all 13 penalties, but allowed four goals in the previous 17 (76.4%) in January. Though the power play is still ranked 5th in the league, they’ve converted on just 13% of their PP chances in their last 11 games, and they need to keep the puck out of their own net if they continue to struggle offensively.
The Third Line: The Hawks have had no problems with their third line in years past- in fact, it’s been one of their strengths. This year, due to injuries and constant shuffling, a solid third line hasn’t really been established yet, with guys like Kris Versteeg, Brandon Saad, Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, and Michal Handzus being shuffled around constantly. Recently, Quenneville mentioned using the third line less often because he didn’t feel comfortable putting them on the ice. While a solid fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, and Ben Smith has helped alleviate the third line struggle, it’s important to remember that one of the reasons the Hawks won the cup last year was their ability to roll four lines consistently, and if they can’t rely on a third line, they’re bound to continue to run into problems.
Fatigue: Last year’s season started on January 19th, and the Hawks have played 124 games in that time frame- 71 in the shortened season, and 53 in the current. That’s an average of about one game every 3 days-and that’s if you include the summer break. Taking the deep playoff run combined with the hectic start Chicago had this year, and you have a lot of hockey in a short period of time. This fatigue factor isn't just isolated to a few players either, as the Hawks have just two players on their roster who were not with them last year- Michael Kostka and Antti Raanta. While some players will get a break to rest and recover with the Olympics fast approaching, 10 of the Hawks will go to play in Russia.
It’s easy to say that the Hawks are falling apart, but it’s not unusual for a team to struggle at one point or another during a long season. For the Blackhawks, who have spoiled Chicago fans with their stellar play over the last year, it may look far worse than it actually is. A positive- the Hawks have plenty of time between now and April to work out any lingering problems. But with other powerhouse teams like Anaheim, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh posing serious threats to the cup-contenders, finding solutions sooner rather than later is preferable.