Chicago Blackhawks look to find their stride mid-season
As the season rolls on and the new year is almost at our doorstep, it's worth contemplating who might be more frustrated right now for the Chicago Blackhawks: the fans, or the players.
Injury after injury has taken its toll already on the team - Hossa, Bolland, Kane, Pisani.
One has to particularly feel for Marian Hossa, who started off the season completely healthy and set a blazing streak, only to be sidelined by injury, and then, upon his return to the ice, get injured again just a few games later. He's only played 21 of 32 games so far this season, but when he's not on the ice, it feels like so many more.
Brian Campbell has recently returned to play after missing the first month due to injury, and the blue line has been better with him back, particularly his usual partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson. The defense still struggles, however - some nights, it's hard to remember that five of the six D-men on the ice returned from last year's team. Brent Seabrook, after being the most consistent defenseman thus far this season, put in a performance on Monday night that he admitted was terrible in post-game interviews.
After letting in four goals in the first 21 minutes of play, Coach Quenneville swapped goalies, sending rookie Corey Crawford in for Marty Turco. Crawford looked big and solid for the rest of the game - until the last few minutes of play, when glaring holes in defense led directly to two goals in under a minute, turning the Blackhawks 5-4 lead into a 5-6 fight to stay in the game. The Blackhawks went to six skaters, and the Avs clinched their win with an empty-netter.
"Devastating, embarrassing, humiliating — I don't know what word you want to use but it's not going to be a good one," team Captain Jonathan Toews said after the game. Frustration clearly visible on his face, Toews also said he "doesn't understand" why the team keeps blowing games late in play, and that it "ticks [him] off"
Toews is generally unflappable. He's always come across as intense, competitive, a born leader, and one who leads by example - but also even-keeled and rarely seen out-of-sorts. But lately, his frustrations are starting to show. He's been seen as barking on the bench; he's been in more than one scruff on the ice. It's a sign how intently he cares about what's going on that this is coming through; but it's unlike his typical behavior. One can only imagine what's going through his head as he seeks to find ways to make the team gel more cohesively.
One also has to wonder about what frustrations are going through the other members of the team: the guys who have returned from last season, but can't seem to consistently find their game this year. Or the slate of rookies/newcomers - Jake Dowell, Corey Crawford, Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Jeremy Morin - who are out there every night pouring 110% onto the ice, who fought to get their roster spots for the season, and who now are working hard to prove they were worthy of those spots. While each of them may not be consistently able to put up points, they're all proving that they have a lot of heart for this team.
The Blackhawks had a lot of years to be the underdog during the 1990s and early 2000s, when the concept of salary cap issues were much more related to staying above floor than they were to managing to staying under the ceiling. Success came relatively fast as within a 3-4 year period when the team experienced relatively low turnover, and the team was solid last season, culminating of course in the Stanley Cup win.
There was a lot of talk early in the season about Stanley Cup hangovers, new faces in the locker room, and so forth. But the guys who came up from Rockford were already known to the Blackhawks; they'd all played a few games at the NHL level, or had been teammates on the Icehogs with those who'd made the leap earlier (Hjalmarsson, Brouwer).
Even with the injuries currently plaguing the team, the excuses are all gone. Team chemistry should no longer be as big a factor when you're making the turn on the midpoint of the season as it was the day the banners were lifted over the ice at the United Center. Any rustiness from a short summer off should be gone; line partners should be enough familiar with each other by now to at least look like they've played together on a regular basis.
“[Coach Quenneville] came in here and said it after - it’s contagious when a couple of guys start being lazy and don’t do the right things,” Toews said after Monday's game. “Well, the next guy is going to do the same thing. There’s just not one or two or three leaders in this locker room, everybody has got to lead by example in their own way, and we’re just obviously not doing that right now."
The Blackhawks play the Avalanche for the third matchup of the season tonight at the United Center. You can be certain that Chicago will be looking to redeem themselves against Colorado.