Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
A day after two of the top teams in the NHL battled it out at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, a match-up with slightly less hype took place out on the opposite side of the country. The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, two teams who are failing to live up to expectations, took to the ice at Honda Center looking to gain some traction in a rough and tumble Western Conference playoff race.
Despite putting 40 shots on Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller, the Blackhawks still found themselves on the losing end of a 2-1 decision. Andreas Lilja and Corey Perry notched the tallies for the Ducks, and Bryan Bickell picked up the lone Hawks goal in the loss.
Within this single game, both teams revealed some character traits, both flaws and strengths, that have the potential to either destroy or make their seasons. With playoff berths on the line as both teams speed toward the second half of the season, there is no time like the present to examine exactly what we learned about the squads in Orange County, and what their respective efforts tell us about their chances to make the post-season come April.
What Did We Learn About the Blackhawks?
-Patrick Kane’s Struggles Are Hurting This Team
One of the things holding this team back, at least according to observers, was Kane’s absence when he missed a couple of weeks in December. His return was supposed to help out an offense that looked listless at times, and it was hoped that his time off would help him regain the form that he had last season.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, Kane hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since returning. In three games, he has only taken six shots, looked disinterested at times on the ice, and has watched the team lose three contests in a row after winning four in a row prior to his coming back. He has been a complete non-entity, and with the team also missing captain Jonathan Toews due to injury, his slump could not have come at a worse time.
With the depth this roster lost during the off-season, guys like Kane and Marian Hossa are even more critical to the performance of the team’s offense. If they aren’t going to produce at a high level, then this team is going to struggle to score goals, and that could be disastrous for their playoff hopes.
-Dumb Penalties Are Killing Them
The Blackhawks had several moments in the game where they were looking to completely seize the momentum, and then they would pull back from the precipice and commit a foolish penalty. They were trying to reverse the mojo that was trending toward the Ducks in the first period, and then Dave Bolland committed a holding infraction. That set the tone for the remainder of the period, and the Hawks couldn’t get anything else going.
In the second period, the Hawks were trying to overcome a 2-1 deficit and had a lot of good chances on net, but penalties to Patrick Sharp and Tomas Kopecky once again stifled them.
When the Hawks have committed penalties this season, they have generally gotten burned. They are currently the fifth worst penalty killing unit in the league, so when they give other teams opportunities to score goals, they are generally taking them. This is not a recipe for success for a team that fancies itself a playoff contender, and the Hawks need to reverse this trend if they are serious about fixing what ails them.
–This Team is Capable of Generating Tons of Chances
The Blackhawks may not be proficient at converting their chances into goals, the simple fact is that they are generating enough of them that the dam will eventually break.
In the third period on Sunday night, the Hawks got 19 shots on goal against Jonas Hiller, and he stopped all of them. It was an annoying evening for the Hawks’ offense as a whole, but it was still a heartening effort by Chicago on the offensive side of the puck. Bickell’s goal in the first period gave him points in eight of his last nine games with the Hawks, and it showed that this team is capable of getting scoring from places other than the top six forwards.
-Is It Time to Panic in Chicago?
In an increasingly tight Western Conference, the Hawks need to start to turn things around sooner rather than later. They cannot keep coming out with the subpar efforts that they have displayed in recent games, and if they can’t begin to get more scoring from guys like Patrick Kane, and if injuries keep knocking them down, there is very little chance that they’ll be able to come out of a very tough Western Conference and get into the playoffs.
Are they a playoff caliber team? They are, considering that they have the defensive players (albeit ones who have struggled this season but are capable of turning things around) and pretty good goaltenders in Marty Turco and Corey Crawford. The biggest challenge for them will be getting their big guns going, and also minimizing mistakes on defense. They can do it, but the window of opportunity is closely quickly for this bunch.
What Did We Learn About the Ducks?
-Can a Brother Get Some Defense?
The Ducks have had one huge problem this entire season, and it reared its ugly head again on Sunday night: their inability to keep pucks from getting to their net.
The 40 shots that Jonas Hiller faced in the game are hardly an anomaly. He is constantly being peppered with shots, and the Ducks’ young defensive corps isn’t doing much to help him out. In fact, the Ducks currently are allowing the most shots per game of any squad in the league, with 34.6 pucks per game finding their way through the defense and onto the net.
It’s incredible to think that with all that rubber flying at Hiller that Anaheim is still right in the middle of the pack in goals allowed this season at 2.79. They need to figure out a way to lessen the stress level on their goaltender, or else they are going to find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time.
–I Take Offense to That
While shots allowed has been a massive area of concern, it is also the team’s lack of scoring that can be called into question. The team is scoring only 2.55 goals per game, which ranks them slightly behind offensive juggernauts like Minnesota and Calgary. The league’s 22nd ranked scoring offense has also been hindered recently by the loss of prolific scorer Ryan Getzlaf, who is out with multiple nasal fractures after taking a puck to the face.
With limited scoring options on the team, the Ducks are in a world of hurt in this area as well. Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan can’t handle the load on their own, and Teemu Selanne isn’t getting any younger either. Their weak defense is putting strain on this offense, and it simply doesn’t look like it can support the burden.
–My Name is Jonas
If the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens taught us anything, it’s that a hot goaltender can help save the day for a team that is struggling to help him out. Hiller might just be that type of goaltender, as he never looked flustered in Anaheim’s victory on Sunday. He moves so effortlessly around the crease, it’s almost hard to believe how much fire that he is under during games.
If Hiller is capable of carrying the load when his defense struggles (and that seems to happen a lot), then he might be able to help this team hold on long enough to bring more guns aboard, and to get Getzlaf back and healthy to help score more goals.
-Is Anaheim Going to Be Able to Make the Playoffs?
It’s tough to see the Ducks, especially as currently constructed, being able to successfully navigating the treacherous pond that is the Pacific Division. Their defense may be rough and tumble, but they are also largely unsuccessful at defending against opposing offenses. Having a great goaltender is only going to carry this bunch so far. If they can’t begin to score goals more effectively, prevent shots from finding the net, and in general play a more disciplined game, then there is simply no way they are going to be able to overcome teams like San Jose and Los Angeles and get into the playoffs come April.