Blackhawks home stretch report card: Fine-tuning before the playoffs
There is no better time to be thankful that all the armchair GMs aren't real GMs than directly after a tough loss right before the trade deadline.
Monday night on Twitter, as the Blackhawks walked out of a lackluster game with a 5-4 loss to the LA Kings, whom they had previously dominated earlier in the season, all the usual suggestions came out. So-and-so should go back to Rockford. So-and-so is dead weight this season and should be traded. (If he's such dead weight, who else is going to want him?) So-and-so isn't getting it done. In exchange, fans are looking for every high-profile player out there, future salary concerns be ignored.
In a season like this one has been, when a team seems to roll as easily as the Blackhawks did through the first half of the season, it can be forgiven to overlook little flaws. So long as the team continued to win, win, and win, all was happy and calm with the fanbase. A few losses in, and you'd think the team had plummeted to join the Flames and the Avalance, scraping the bottom of the conference.
It's easy to look over the team's shoulder and gaze a little wide-eyed at the Ducks and Penguins, who have finally narrowed the gap and threaten to overtake the Blackhawks for top place in the league. It's fun to be number one -- especially for as long as Chicago has held that position this year. It's fun, too, to see traditional rivals such as Vancouver, Detroit, and St. Louis much further down in the standings.
At the end of the season, what matters most is not the Presidents' Trophy. Oh, it certainly would be nice to add that one to the trophy case once again; the Blackhawks last won it in 1990-1991. But what the Blackhawks have their eye on is the big silver chalice that trumps all others.
Did the Blackhawks have it too easy early in the season? It's not that other teams were pushovers. It's just that Chicago had little roster turnover, coupled with the fact that half their players were either in the AHL or overseas during the lockout. That jump on the season, both from a conditioning standpoint and season readiness, cannot be discounted. The Blackhawks started the abbreviated season in what could almost be called midseason form; and it's been reflected on their score sheets.
Here's something to reassure fans: at this point in the season, it would be nearly impossible to prevent the Blackhawks from making the post-season. Even if Chicago takes the rest of the season the way that they've taken their last seven games prior to Tuesday night (4 losses in 7 games, .429 win%), they'd still earn enough points to handily win the Central, and finish no worse than third in the West.
But you don't want a team that is already all but assured of a berth to finish out the season by cruising out the rest of their games in order to save energy for the playoffs. Amazing things can happen with teams in the stretch run, especially ones desperate not to miss the post-season. You want that team to keep their foot on the pedal, and ride continued momentum all the way to the last game of the Stanley Cup Final.
Where do the Blackhawks currently need to improve?
The Blackhawks still need to find a second line center. Several names have been bandied about as the trade deadline nears, but Stan Bowman and Coach Quenneville have both stated the team feels comfortable where it is at. Chicago plays their cards close to the vest, however, and it's unlikely any solid reports will leak about potential trades until they actually happen. The Blackhawks might look at a "rental" player, but it's questionable that they would take on potentially large salary unless they can trade some cap space away in the process.
Dave Bolland just isn't what the team needs in a second line center, but it's more about his FOW than his other stats. He's made his bread and butter by being the third line center the past few seasons. As the checking line anchor, Bolland has previously never finished a season in negative +/- since his rookie debut, when he only played one game in 2006-07. The Blackhawks only have three players in negative numbers, and Bolland a team-worst at -3. He is currently averaging 0.48 points/game, which is only slightly below his career average of 0.50.
Bolland is best known for being a "pest". During the 2009-2010 season, he averaged 0.9 penalties drawn per 60 minutes. He is now down to 0.6 PD/per 60. Has his move from the third to the second line affected the style of play for which he has proven well-suited?
Where Bolland (and all other centers not named "Toews" on the team) is struggling is the faceoff dot. Bolland is just 45% at the dot this season, although that's barely below his career average of 46%.
On a line flanked by Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, however, this means forcing guys who should be starting with the puck to have to chase it and gain possession instead.
On a team that bases its entire style of play based off puck possession, a center who is averging 5% below the ideal minimum of 50% means 40 or 50 lost faceoffs over the course of a full season. Forty lost faceoffs might not seem like very much, when spread out that way ... until you consider how quickly a lost faceoff can lead directly to shots on goal - or worse, goals scored.
This is Bolland's primary weakness as a center, but it is also a weakness for Marcus Kruger (46%) and Andrew Shaw (43.9%). Three lost faceoffs per game means that much more time the team must be earning the puck back and strengthening defense.
THIRD PERIOD INTENSITY
In the two of their last three games, the Blackhawks coughed up two late goals to LA for a loss, and the tying goal that led to a shootout loss vs the Ducks. In their recent loss to the Ducks, Chicago gave up three unanswered goals in the third to go from a 2-1 lead to a 4-2 loss. Earlier in the season, if the other team tied things up and pushed to OT or a SO, the Blackhawks wins far outnumbered the OT/SO losses.
This is not a recipe for success in the playoffs. The Blackhawks need to return to shutting the door in the third, and avoiding "playing to not lose" and instead enforcing "playing 60". Their recent romp against Dallas showed they're capable of doing so; it just needs to be seen every night.
Chicago is primarily built for puck possession and speed. When they control the play, through FOW and takeaways, is when they play their best. They used to have a significant takeaway lead over the rest of the league; that is now trimmed considerably. On the bright side, among teams in playoff contention, the Blackhawks still show significant strength in that area.
That book is out on the Blackhawks; teams know they have to start by slowing them down, and then working to take the puck away. For a team that controls the puck as much as Chicago does, it is little surprise that they trail the league in hits by a large number.
However, hitting is not simply for separating the other guy from the puck; it's also about wearing them out, and making them feel a little cautious about chasing into corners because they know they're going to get hit.
Monday night in Chicago, Brent Seabrook laid a beautiful hit on a Kings player, which drew huge cheers from the UC crowd. It was big, physical, and it was the kind of hit we've come to expect out of Seabrook during his career. In Monday's game, he logged five hits.
This year, perhaps concerned about his history of concussions, we're not seeing that same physicality out of Seabrook, although he has really stepped up when it comes to shot-blocking. Seabrook seems to be at his most comfortable when he's playing a much more physical game, and that physicality is starting to creep back into his game.
In the same game, a Kings player laid a good hit on Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Bollig stepped in for a fight. It's not the only fight this season that's happened over a clean hit, and Bollig isn't the only player who's challenged a big hitter after a completely legal hit.
But rather than somebody dropping the gloves and potentially killing momentum when the team has a lead, it should instead be a sign that the team should step up their own physical presence. Bryan Bickell, Jimmy Hayes, Bollig, Seabrook, Sheldon Brookbank, Jamal Mayers -- all big guys who, if they're not already known for being a physical presence (hits, jostling guys off the puck), could bring more of that to their game.
Chicago has again been planting bodies in front of opposing goalies and getting more gritty, dirty goals than the past two seasons. This trend needs to continue. If they can't be as big as other teams, then they have to play as big.
The Blackhawks won't have to face off against Anaheim in the first round. But the Kings have shown they can give Chicago fits. St. Louis, San Jose, Minnesota -- all highly physical teams. It's not unlikely for Chicago and Anaheim to meet in the Western Conference Final, and no team has given the Blackhawks more of a headache this season.
If the Blackhawks remain the last team standing in the West, the Final round won't get any easier. Eastern teams might be slower than the West, but they tend to be more physical. Eastern playoff contention teams like Toronto (1st), Winnipeg (2nd), Ottawa (6th), Pittsburgh (9th), and Boston (10th) lead the league in hits. Only four Western teams are within the top 10 for hits, and of them, only LA is currently in a playoff position.
Remember, physicality isn't all about hits. It's also the ability to be willing and be able to get in the corners and fight for those pucks, to dig them out, and the ability to hold off the opposing teams from takeaways. It's about not letting the opposing team knock you off your game.
POWER PLAY / PENALTY KILL
Chicago stayed among the top two teams on the PK for several weeks early in the season, and was decent on the PP. Power play time is valuable, and Chicago's PP% has dropped to 17.7, just 17th overall in the league. Several Western playoff teams - most notably Anaheim - remain much more successful on the PP.
The Blackhawks remain strong on the power play, especially on the road, averaging 84.3%, good enough for 7th in the league. Two Western teams still strongly in the playoff hunt, Minnesota and San Jose, are better.
The Blackhawks lost two of their prime players, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, to injuries in the middle of this shortened season. Between them, they've already missed 10 games, and neither is back in the lineup yet. Both are in the top 5 offensive leaders on the team, averaging 1.6 points/game between them.
Additionally, Sharp averages 1.6 PD/per 60, and Hossa averages 0.8, so between them, they not only are offensive powerhouses, but they make other teams make mistakes and earn their team PP time.
Chicago is a very good team, but with Hossa and Sharp in the lineup, they're better. The chemistry on the lines that started the season has been fantastic.
Overall, the team has been fun and exciting to watch, but even the players themselves acknowledge that they can be better and that there's room for improvement. They have 16 games left against a lot of physical teams; and the Blackhawks have to show they have not only the finesse but the grit to go deep in the playoffs.
Current record: 25-4-3 (53 pts; 1st in West; 1st in league)
Current season grade: B+ (lots to like; but areas of improvement)