Chicago: Where the only thing consistent is the inconsistency
After Sunday night's loss to the Oilers, Brian Campbell summed it up in a way that the Blackhawks fans have been feeling for two weeks: "Thers's no excuses for it," he said. "We have to find ways to finish chances throughout the game, and work harder ... We obviously didn't get the job done again tonight, which is getting a little old."
Campbell also echoed the recent words of Hossa and Toews, calling the losses "unacceptable" and that the team wasn't working hard enough, saying, "Losing two games to these guys in our own building is not a good thing. Losing two games to any team in our own building in a matter of what, two weeks ... it's unacceptable. We've got to get a little mad in this locker room and go out there and win some more battles.''
A little mad? How about a lot mad?
The season hasn't even hit the one-month mark, and the Blackhawks have played the most games in the league - 17, for 17 points - and it is only due to those extra two games that they aren't further down in the standings, because their record is 8-8-1, which is a 47% winning percent.
In the highly competitive Western Conference, being below .500 might keep you on the charts early in the season, but it's not going to get you to the playoffs. The last time a WC team with under .500 made it into the playoffs was the 2003-04 season. (In comparison, three teams in the EC went to the playoffs last year with .500 or less - Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal.)
Even worse than the losing record, there is the fact that Chicago dropped three of their past six games to two of the worst teams in the league - giving away six points, all in their own building. Edmonton has only won against the Flames, Panthers and the Blackhawks this season; New Jersey has only won vs. Buffalo, Montreal, Anaheim, and Chicago. The trend isn't pretty.
While the Hawks won't be facing the Oilers again this season, they will be heading to Edmonton next week, and can hopefully return the favor in the third of four match ups that the teams will have this year.
Watching Sunday's game, and games like the Oiler's October 7th opener vs the Flames where he blanked the Flames in a shut out, you have to wonder where was this version of Nikolai Khabibulin when he played for Chicago? This is the same goalie who limped through the 2005-06 season with a .886/3.35 record. His next three seasons sv%/GAA increased each season, but in 2008-09, he lost the starting position to his backup - Cristobal Huet - although Khabibulin carried Chicago as far as the Western Conference finals. And although his sv% is back down to .905/3.10, it's not entirely his fault, as he's been playing like a man possessed in net, making truly spectacular saves all season. Too bad the Oilers defense seems to need a roadmap in their own zone - well, at least against just about every other team in the league.
Corey Crawford was pretty solid in goal for Chicago last night, with the exception of the two goals in 14 seconds. Can't say it was entirely his fault, however, as the Oilers capitalized on the power play and gaps in Chicago defense to make those goals happen. Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, since they only managed to get on the scoresheet once, that was enough for the Oilers to win the game.
The stat sheet is telling an interesting story for the Blackhawks this year. Duncan Keith, the defending Norris Trophy winner is leading the league in giveaways (27), more that double the next closest player on the team; but also has the second-most takeaways (20), tied with Jonathan Toews. He's also logging the most time on the ice not only in the team but in the league, so his flaws might be understandable.
Troy Brouwer is leading the team for hits (48), which puts him 6th overall in the league, just ahead of Brent Seabrook (46/9th). Nick Boynton is leading the team for blocks (41), which puts him 2nd overall in the league. Patrick Kane has picked up 8 blocks and 2 hits - and a few near-fights - in 16 games; last year in the entire season he only had 22 hits and 21 blocks (5 of those hits and 4 blocks came from the playoffs). John Scott was brought in for his muscle and presence, but he's a giant teddy bear on the ice, measuring only 19 hits and 6 blocks - not only does Brouwer have more, but so do Jack Skille, Jake Dowell, and Viktor Stalberg - all forwards.
The best shooting percentages come from Marian Hossa - who missed five games; Brian Campbell; and also from scrappy fourth-line center Jake Dowell. The leading number of assists on the team (11) is one of the defensemen, Duncan Keith; while the top scorer has been Patrick Sharp (10) - who also happens to be dragging around a -11 +/-.
John Scott, the guy who was hired to be a physical presence on the team, hasn't really gotten anybody to fight him until last night's scrap against one of the Oilers. Jake Dowell, who seems to get in a fight every other game, finally won one decisively the other night.
Bryan Bickell was a noticeable force in the pre-season and the first few regular season games; now, he's almost disappeared. Tomas Kopekcy's ice time has doubled, but his production when he's not on a line with Marian Hossa is awful. Viktor Stalberg and Fernando Pisani started off the season struggling, but have seemingly clicked into place and have been notching up goals and assists. Jordan Hendry was a help in the playoffs last spring; now he's been weak on defense.
In short, the only thing that's consistent in Chicago right now is the inconsistency.
In the midst of all the maddenly inconsistency, however, are a few bright points:
- Jake Dowell, Jack Skille and Victor Stalberg are all bringing it on a nightly basis, even if they're not always getting the points or the shots on net. They're working hard, battling in the corners, flying down the ice, going in for those dirty plays around the net. These are three guys who are working very hard to prove that they don't want to be sent out to Rockford for any reason.
- All the guys who've been called up from Rockford have been working pretty hard too, even though they haven't seen a lot of games.
- In fact, Jeremy Morin was impressive enough in just two games that it wasn't just the fans/bloggers hoping he'd stay up - a number of professional mainstream media writers were even pondering why he was getting sent back to Rockford. Chances are that it's purely salary cap related and that he may get shuttled back and forth to Rockford to preserve as much cap space as possible.
- Patrick Kane seems to have realized that he's not going to get by on speed forever. He put on at least 25 pounds of muscle since last fall. This year, he's been willingly hitting and blocking, and even scrapping it up occasionally, but he's also occassionally been cherry-picking on the blue line and his stick work has been a bit sloppy at times. Thumbs up to getting accustomed to more physicality, but please, Kaner - don't sacrifice your "A" game in order to prove you can rip it up.
- Tomas Kopecky is working his butt off, and he's also been playing nearly twice the TOI as he did last season - 18:29 per game so far this season; 6th highest on team. Last year he was 9:28. This is due to front-line injuries, mainly; and frankly, the best thing about Kopecky is he works really hard, knows his role, and wants to make stuff happen. Unfortunately, his heart and his skill level don't quite line up, but at least he's doing all he can to try to make the plays. He plays far better when he's matched up on Hossa's line, but he can't be there all season. He needs to start clicking on other lines, too.
- People might've complained about the timing of Nick Boynton's last-minute dumb penalties, but Boynton is working hard, making a lot of blocks (as noted, 2nd most in the league), and trying to improve his game. He's playing better than Jordan Hendry and John Scott, at any rate, if he could just stay out of the penalty box more.
- Jonathan Toews seems to have shaken off his usual October slow start and exploded on Saturday night, with two goals, and two assists. Let's hope that's enough of his slump.
- Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp: despite Sharp's -11, and even with Hossa mission a handful of games due to injury, these two are practically hoisting the team on their shoulders and are combined for 17 goals, 11 assists and 28 points. Sharp's been dubbed the 'rock star' and Hossa has been proclaimed a diety by fans.
- Marty Turco and Corey Crawford together are letting in an average 2.8 goals per game, but if these two weren't playing as good as they have been, the numbers would look a lot worse. Turco alone has faced the fourth-most shots against in the league so far, whether you break it down by games played, or by total SA - 393. Only Cam Ward (CAR), Jonas Hiller (ANA) and Chris Mason (ATL) have faced more shots - and Turco has the best GAA among the top five SA. (PHX's Bryzgalov rounds out the top five.)
Most importantly, when the team shows up and they play hard, they can dominate, they can score, and they can dominate the puck play in the style that has become their trademark. They can even win. But so far, they've sleptwalked their way through a few games, and played sloppy on others. Worse, on the games where they've been tied or leading going into the third, they've let those wins slip away.
Watching last night's game, you could see Chicago play a far better game against the Oilers than their matchup on October 29th. It's too bad the healthy spark of domineering light that they demonstrated in the last few minutes of play wasn't on display for the full sixty.
The Blackhawks have their next game Wednesday, November 10th, when they host the Phoenix Coyotes (4-5-4) at the United Center.