Chicago Blackhawks' - Road Test

 

We are half way through the 2011-2012 NHL season as we are in  All Star Game weekend.  The Chicago Blackhawks are in a battle for every point with their Central Division mates the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. 

The Blackhawks have enjoyed the comforts and the fan support of the United Center for most of December and January.  They have the highest amount of homes games played to this point along with the LA Kings at 28 games in the league. Chicago has played in front of the UC faithful for the greater portion of the first half of the season a luxury that will not continue in the second half of the season.  While it is important to win in your own house a champion must be able to win on the road.

The Blackhawks have a great home record of 19-6-4 while their road record so far is pedestrian at best with a 10-9-2 tally. Now they face what could be the difference of where they will stand in the playoffs with only 32 total games left and a precious 64 points at stake. They will embark on a three-week 9 game road trip which could determine the seasons results.

There are only 12 games left on their schedule at the United Center so the remaining 20 games will all be in enemy territory and primarily against Western Conference teams. Only 5 games left will be against Eastern Conference foes. Starting the three-week road trip with Canada and then Western US and ending  in Columbus. This road trip will be a road test to see if the Hawks can pass or not. They will need to come away with better than a .500 record to keep pace in the Central and that may not even be enough. 

This road test may also be a good examination for the defensive part of the Blackhawks game as well.  It may push ahead the decision of acquiring another defenseman. Ideally this D-man is one that is a big physical penalty killer that can assist in this area and spell Keith and Seabrook some minutes during the regular season so they are fresh going into the playoffs.

So what specifically has been the cause of the average road record to date and what needs to be addressed? There is one word that can sum up the difference between the Blackhawks play at home and when they are on the road – physicality. Yes the Hawks must get physical if they are to improve their road record.

The Hawks are not a overly physical team anyway but they need to muscle up on the road. At the UC they are ranked 11th in the league in hits. Outside of the UC they are ranked dead last in the league in hitting. This must be improved upon to walk away with some wins. What this illustrates is the Hawks are getting out muscled off the puck on the road and this needs to change.

Also they give up to many opportunities to the opposition with give aways. At home they are ranked 15th in the league which is smack dab in the middle of the pack. On the road the give aways plummet to 25th in the league.  This could be a result of the above mentioned being out muscled or poor positioning and bad passes in their own zone.

I know when you’re on the road your luggage can disappear but must the block shots disappear as well? The Blackhawks are ranked 15th in the league at home with 333 blocked shots, on the road they are ranked 29th in the NHL with 287. Again this speaks to a lack of physicality by the entire team.

A glaring difference that speaks to the overall teams’ defense is the +/- ratio. In Chicago they are great at +26 which is among the league leaders. On the road their ratio is -8 which speaks volumes as to why they are only slightly above .500 on the road.  This speaks to overall team defense not just by the defensemen but the entire teams defense. The forwards need to watch their positioning and backcheck to help the defense and goalie.

While the Blackhawks have not had a problem on the offensive end this could be improved upon on the road.  They have 99 goals at home but only 59 on road and even though they have played more at home the averages are higher at home. The Hawks average 3.5 goals at home and only 2.8 on the road. This could be because they are familiar with the UC so on the road just keep shooting at the opposition's goal some shots are bound to get through.

That last road trip in November where they had the debacle in Alberta the Hawks ended up that road trip 3-3 and while it was good that they managed to salvage a .500 record that was earlier in the season and they did not have Detroit, St. Louis and Nashville breathing down their necks.

This road trip is important for the Hawks to come away with better than .500 record as they are simply running out of games to get points to get them into the post season.  If they improve their team defense, watch their positioning in their zone, get shots to the net and try to stay out of the penalty box they could come away with valuable points.

Detroit only has 14 road games left after the All Star break so they will have the advantage of the Joe. The Blues have 20 road games left and the Predators have 17. So again it looks like the Detroit Red Wings will be hard to slow down for a pit stop with them having the home ice advantage.

The one advantage the road holds is the team can bond together and not be distracted by external things outside of hockey. It’s possible the road may provide the Hawks with a reason to simplify their game and play more as a team defensively. If they can find that stingy defense that they have been looking for all year, this team can be deadly.

This road trip could and probably will determine the Hawks season. I hope when the schedule came out they all paced themselves and left some gas in the tank for this trip. The good news is most of the Hawks will get a break coming on the heels of the All Star game. Hopefully much needed rest and injuries can heal.

The road starts on Tuesday and of course, it is only fitting it be in Vancouver.  I can't think of a better place or team for the Hawks to start spreading their wings for the remaining road. 

Let’s hope the road to the Stanley Cup has to go through Chicago and not Detroit, Nashville or St.Louis. It will make a grueling journey much easier if the Hawks can get home ice advantage. While the road trip and the journey is fun it is the final destination that is the ultimate thriller of a ride. This road test could just be the preparation the Blackhawks need before throttling to the finish line.