Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
To call the season the 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks are having tumultuous would be an understatement. They came out of the gate playing more games and with more frequency than anyone else, and when you couple that with the numerous injuries that they have suffered and all of the expectations heaped upon a team coming off of a Stanley Cup championship, you have the makings of a rough year.
Even with all of those distractions, the Hawks are still managing to keep their heads above water. Their defense hasn’t been nearly as stout as it was last season, and their offense can be maddeningly inconsistent at times, but they have still managed to hang around in a tough Western Conference, and they showed their mettle in a big way over the weekend.
Friday’s match-up with the Red Wings was one of those classic gut-check games that teams have during tough stretches. Coming off of back-to-back losses to the surging Avalanche, and once again without Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane in the lineup, the Hawks seemed ripe to be picked off by Detroit. Nevertheless, Chicago dug deep and won a grueling 4-1 battle on home ice.
Sunday’s contest was no easier as the Los Angeles Kings skated into town. The Kings were back-stopped admirably by possible Vezina contender Jonathan Quick in the game, but it was not enough as Chicago gutted out a 3-2 win to finish off the weekend on a high note.
With those two victories in tow, the Hawks will continue to defend home ice as Christmas approaches. As they hunker down against the bitter chill of another Chicago winter night, one question keeps coming to mind for fans and observers of the team: could they finally be turning the corner toward another playoff run, or is this just another one of the false starts that has plagued the team all season?
There are a couple of factors that are working against the Hawks right now. The biggest hurdle is going to be the stiff competition that they are facing from the rest of the conference. If current Points Per Game averages carry through til the end of the season (admittedly highly unlikely considering divisional play, etc.), then the Hawks would finish the season as the 10th place team in the West. They are currently on pace to finish six points behind San Jose, who is one of our Pacific Division teams on pace to make the post-season, with Anaheim the odd man out in that division.
The Hawks are also experiencing some stiff competition from within their own division. Detroit is currently on pace to win the Central by 10 points over Nashville, and they are on pace to clear Chicago by 20 points when all is said and done. Chicago may have done itself a favor by beating the Red Wings on Friday night, but there is still a lot of work to be done if the Hawks want to move their way back into the conversation in the divisional race.
The Hawks also are looking at a tough road ahead schedule wise. After the next three games, which are all against Central opponents, Chicago will be playing four straight games against Pacific foes, including two on the road against Los Angeles and Anaheim. After that, they get a breather when the Senators and Islanders come to town, but then things get tough again when they have to play Colorado, Nashville (twice), Detroit, and Philadelphia in a 10 day span.
The team is also going to need to improve upon its dismal performance in the penalty killing department. The losses in the off-season of John Madden and Kris Versteeg have really hurt Chicago in this area, and they are currently the third worst penalty killing unit in the entire NHL. The only teams that they are better than while a man down are the Maple Leafs and Islanders. That isn’t exactly stellar company to keep.
While the upcoming schedule has plenty to make Hawks fans cringe, there are still several rays of hope on the horizon. The improved play that the team has exhibited recently is one such reason for optimism. Over the team’s last 11 games, the Hawks are 7-3-1, and over that stretch they have beaten several good teams and have allowed two goals or less six times during that time.
Goaltender Corey Crawford has also been very good recently for the Hawks, picking up wins in nine of his last 12 outings and firmly entrenching himself as the team’s starting keeper for the foreseeable future. Crawford has a lot of the same qualities as former Hawks goalie Antti Niemi, as he is a quiet youngster with a penchant for coming up with big saves when called upon. He is also a better puck-handler than Niemi was, and that could bode well for a team that isn’t exactly adept at clearing out the defensive zone this season.
Jonathan Toews has also been slowly turning his season around recently. The Hawks’ captain has scored 10 goals in his last 15 games, and he has begun to assert himself more on and off the ice. He has taken a more vocal leadership role this year than he has in the past, and the fact that he is backing up his hard-charging attitude with production on the ice only adds to his credibility and his reputation as one of the best captains in the league.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has also begun implementing some subtle changes in the defensive rotation as well. He has cut down the minutes of both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who were beginning to show signs of wear after having a ton of ice time in the early going. He has also been sending out Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson more often to compensate, and they have responded well, with Niklas blocking shots with his old fervor and Campbell beginning to be more aggressive in starting the offense up the ice.
There’s also the matter of the Hawks finally getting healthier. Fernando Pisani has come back after dealing with some nagging injuries, and fellow forwards Kane and Hossa look like they could potentially be back during the next week or so. Getting back the scoring punch that the team has been missing will certainly be a key factor in determining whether or not they can continue this run of solid play, but it almost goes without saying that the team will benefit offensively from these two defense-stretching stalwarts.
Finally, there’s the matter of Chicago’s sneaky-good power play. Even without Kane and Hossa in the lineup, the Hawks have still crept up the standings and are now the top-ranked power play unit in the NHL, converting 24.6% of their chances. Converting man advantage situations into goals is the hallmark of a successful hockey team, and the Hawks are definitely doing their job when other teams give them a chance to capitalize on mistakes.
So have the Blackhawks turned the corner, or is this just another one of the intervals in which they tease fans and then rip the rug out from under them? If the last two games are any indication, then Chicago might finally be rounding into form. The power play is clicking, the defense looks better than it has for awhile, and Crawford’s net-minding has been a pleasant surprise.
The next couple of weeks are crucial ones for the team’s playoff chances, but if they can ride out the storm and stay in the thick of playoff contention through the end of January, they have an excellent chance of making the post-season. An easy February schedule will allow them to bolster their record a bit, and with the improvements they have been making, they are likely going to be a team that no one wants to face come April.
They just have to get there first.