Looking at the schedule ahead for the Blackhawks
There are certain games you get up for in the course of the season, and few tend to generate as much excitement within a fanbase as the first meeting of the year between bitter rivals. It's a date circled early on the calendar and loaded with anticipation.
The players get up for it, too, and they feed the media all the right quotes and give the fans the little wink-wink-nudge-nudge, and then .... they go out there and lay a big, fat egg - which is exactly what Chicago did last night against the Vancouver Canucks.
We've discussed the Blackhawks/Canucks rivalry and how last season ended often enough by now. The Blackhawks rolled into Sunday's game on a solid 8-2-3 record, going 5-0-2 at home, leading the West. The Canucks were limping into the game after dropping games on the road to the Wild and the Blues, going 6-7-1. Chicago's been pulling points out of nearly every game they've played, and Vancouver's been showing every sign of a Cup hangover. These teams are nearly mirror images of each other a year ago, except that the Canucks don't have a silver trophy to show for their summer efforts.
Anybody who looked at the game beforehand would have said, "The Canucks need to come into this, play simple hockey, keep it clean, and do the best they can to win." A win for the Cancucks against such hated rivals in the enemy's barn could do a lot to empower a team that's been searching to find its footing: it would give them a huge boost of confidence, and could be the kind of game that helps get a listing ship back on course.
Any team that's putting together what's becoming a losing streak - especially loses against "weaker" teams - is going to be working hard to prevent more losses. Because of that, the Hawks should've expected the Canucks to play their best, and be prepared for it. Instead, the Hawks came out rather flat-footed. It gave horrible flashbacks to the first three games of the spring series, when the Blackhawks looked like they just couldn't pull it together, and the Canucks had their way with them.
An important stat to remember about the Canucks is that they are very, very good on the power play. Going into last night's game, Vancouver was 87.9% on the PK (6th) and 21.2% on the PP (7th), despite a below-.500 record. Chicago was 89.5% (4th) on the PK and 10.4% on the PP (28th). Last season, Vancouver scored 72 PPG - the most in the league - which represented a staggering 27.9% of their 258 goals. This season, prior to their game vs Chicago, Vancouver has scored 14 of their 39 goals on the PP (35.9%). In short, you don't let teams that can score power play goals practically at will on to the PP.
After last night's game? Chicago allowing 5 PP goals meant that Vancouver now has scored 42.2% of their 2011-12 season goals on the power play. Very important lesson that bears repeating: don't let Vancouver get on the PP if you can possibly avoid it.
Those goals also helped destroy Chicago's PK average, busting it down to 79.6%, dropping them from 4th to 22nd in the league on the PK. (Their PP, meanwhile, slid back to 9.4% (28th)).
Chicago was clearly on edge going into the game; they couldn't seem to settle down in the first. Brent Seabrook took an early interference penalty, and recent Panther-turned-Canuck scored his first goal of the season on the PP. Michael Frolik tied up the score when Roberto Luongo misplayed the puck. The Blackhawks survived a late first-period PK, but the remainder of Patrick Kane's first-period-ending penalty came back to them in the form of an Aaron Rome PP goal. Bryan Bickell's boarding penalty resulted in a Daniel Sedin goal; then Chicago made it a 2-3 game with a goal by Marcus Kruger. Just 43 seconds later, Vancouver scored their only even-strength goal of the night.
Niklas Hjalmarsson was quoted after the game as saying, in regards to that goal, “After that, the game was pretty much over. That was obviously a huge goal we let in.”
Yes, it is tough and disheartening to be fighting your way constantly out of a hole, especially when nothing seems to be going right. But there was still 24 minutes and change to go; and an intermission which the team could regroup.
After being outshot 17-9 in the first, the Blackhawks had spent almost nine minutes without a shot on goal against Vancouver in the second, then managed to put together 20 SOG for the rest of the period; that momentum should've carried them into the third - but it didn't. We've already seen the Blackhawks fight their way back from deficits this season; we know they're capable of playing good, solid thirds. Perhaps Hjalmarsson was right and the second was just too draining. They went right back on the PK after the fourth goal - which was only a 2-goal lead with plenty of time to go - and that was clearly deflating; suddenly it was 2-5. The Blackhawks played the third like they just couldn't wait to get out of the game, allowing a final (PP) goal midway through the third.
Oddly enough, when looking at the stat sheet for the night, you'd have a difficult time picking out which team was having the worse night if you didn't see the scoring or the PIMs. Many of the stats were very close: CHI had 40 shots to VAN's 38; Chicago edged Vancouver in the faceoff circle, takeaways and blocks. The most telltale sign was the hits column: not only did the Canucks lead in hits, but everybody except Henrik Sedin and Jannik Hansen registered at least 1 hit. On Chicago's side, only 9 players registered a hit - and of those players who registered none included three of the defensemen. Vancouver had a lot of puck posession and they did what they wanted with the puck; Chicago didn't support its goalie - Bryan Bickell flat-out crashing Crawford's net at one point, which pretty much led to one of the goals - nor were there many takeaways or turnovers in their favor.
Here's the important part: the Canucks scored just one goal at even strength. Luongo's first goal was about as soft as it gets - a Frolik wrister from the blue line that ricocheted through his five-hole. With some good pressure to follow that up, and if the Blackhawks had just been a little more disciplined, just a little more focused, the game could've been a lot tighter, and the Hawks probably would have even won. Instead, they didn't take the opposition seriously enough, and they played undisciplined hockey against a focused foe, and it cost them.
When the schedule was first announced, it was thought that the first month would be "easy" for the Blackhawks, playing teams like Dallas and the Avalanche twice each, and teams like Winnipeg (nee Atlanta) and CBJ for good measure. Instead, last season's non-playoff teams have been a challenge, and aside from Columbus, the Blackhawks have faced a pretty good opening month, and so far, they've been successful.
There is still plenty of season to go, however, and if Chicago wants to keep collecting points at the rate they are (currently on pace for 111), they need to focus, tighten up, and start playing disciplined hockey. If they're going to talk a big game, then they need to follow it up by playing a big game.
In the week ahead, the Blackhawks face a two-game road trip (STL & CBJ), before heading home to the United Center to take on the Calgary Flames, then the white-hot Edmonton Oilers. After that, they'll depart on their annual "Circus Trip" (so named because they have to vacate the UC for 2 weeks due to the circus). They'll face the Canucks for redemption in Vancouver a week from Wednesday, followed by away games at Calgary and Edmonton, then the usual Thanksgiving week California stretch.
While the long road trip seems brutal early in the season, it comes at a very good time for the Hawks this year. For one, the trip always is very good for team bonding. The Hawks also tend to play simpler, cleaner hockey on the road - they're not playing the same flashy style that they tend to lapse into at home. Spending most of the next three weeks on the road should hopefully help build some discipline into the team. Also, with the Oilers playing surprisingly well this year, there's going to be a lot of good, challenging, and exciting hockey over the next few weeks.
Chicago has got the talent, chemistry, and skill to easily make it back to the playoffs, and yes, have another deep run. But in the meantime, they need to stick to the clean, simple basics, and stay focused on their discipline and their defense.