Blackhawks seek to break mid-season slump after loss to Stars

The Blackhawks hosted the Dallas Stars at the United Center on Sunday night, and it was a bad game. After the game, head coach Joel Quenneville called it a "carbon copy" of the loss to the Jets on Friday night.

Based on the score sheet, you can see how things went. Chicago outshot Dallas 41-34 (77-53 if you include blocked shots and missed shots), went 48% of the dot, but ultimately trailed 6-3. The Stars made it 2-0 by the 11-minute mark of the period on Tyler Seguin and Cody Eakin goals - and the second goal was short-handed. While Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad (PPG) would even things up 2-2 for the home team, Vernon Fiddler would give the lead 3-2 back to the Stars by the end of the period.

Brandon Saad would tie the game up several minutes in the middle frame. But after Eakin made it 4-3 for Dallas early in the third, the Blackhawks just couldn't make it up. Erik Cole would make it 5-3, and Shawn Horcoff would salt things away 6-3 with an empty-net goal with a minute remaining. The Blackhawks were limited to just five SOG in the third.
 
While Quenneville said after the game that "our D's been fine", the play on the ice suggests otherwise. The Blackhawks have been the stingiest team in the NHL for much of the season, being at or near the top for goals allowed chart all year. With the number of goals allowed over the past couple games, their GA/G rose to 2.31, which makes Nashville (2.25) the current best team for GA/G.

Their penalty kill has suffered as of late as well, dropping to 88%. They're still the best PK in the league, but there's been a sizeable gap all season between them and the second-place team; now it's just 0.3%.

Should anybody doubt that the team isn't happy, news broke today that the players held a rare team meeting before their morning practice.

After practice, team captain Jonathan Toews noted that "We realize it comes to our work ethic. The last few games, we didn't have that."

It's easy to understand what the team might be going through in the past couple weeks; they lost somebody close from within their locker room, assistant equipment manager Clint Reif, right before Christmas. The impact that would have on a normal person is understandable; to have to deal with the grief while under the very public microscope of being an athlete is not something most of us can comprehend.

The team has gone 6-6-0 in that stretch, including two overtime wins (one SO, one OT), and 5-5-0 in their past ten. Their so-so play against mostly Central Division opponents has dropped them to 3rd in the Central (58 points) behind St. Louis (60) and Nashville (64). They are only ahead of Winnipeg (58 points) because they have two games in hand over the Jets and a better ROW (23 vs 21).

Is there reason to be concerned that the Blackhawks might fall out of playoff contention? Not yet. But their play in January could be the difference in points that determine standings for home ice and opponents in the playoffs. The Stars and Jets have both shown they're able to solve the Blackhawks; and Chicago is most vulnerable when they allow themselves to be goaded off their game - which doesn't appear to be all that difficult lately.

The Blackhawks have two games before the All-Star Break. First, they will host the struggling Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on Tuesday night. Antti Raanta, who has been a sparkling 13-0-2 with a 1.53 GAA and .947 sv% on Chicago ice, will get the start; so expect Corey Crawford to start when the Blackhawks head to Pittsburgh on Wednesday before the All-Star Game break.

After the break, the Blackhawks will head out on the road for their second major western road trip of the season, visiting the three California teams, Minnesota, and Winnepeg, before wrapping up at St. Louis.

Andrew Shaw stated after Monday's practice that they have to "expect teams wanting to beat us". It's questionable as to why the Blackhawks players don't seem to realize that other teams feel like that for every single game, not just the backstretch to the playoffs. After all, teams repeatedly call Chicago the "gold standard" of teams to beat in the league; which means teams use the Blackhawks as a measuring stick of how they're performing. A win versus Chicago can give a team the confidence that will propel them through the rest of the season.

Chicago will want to play exceptionally well this week: the Blackhawks-Penguins game will be broadcast nationally on NBCSN the night before five Blackhawks attend the All-Star Weekend in Columbus.

It's tough to feel like an All-Star when your team has been playing at the .500 mark for a month.