The Chicago Blackhawks have fallen on hard times in the month of March having gone 2-4-1, but is it time for the fans to panic?
While losing five times early in the month is never a good thing for any team, the Blackhawks have actually had similar missteps over the last several season. None of those ended terribly (2 Stanley Cups, Western Conference Finals Game 7 in OT).
Is it cause for concern? Certainly, but panic is something that the Blackhawks rarely make room for as a team.
Of course, their defense isn’t as strong as it was in 2013, but their offense is much more potent (when they are clicking), and Corey Crawford has had the best season of his career (in spite of a rough patch in his last few starts). Will that be enough to offset the blue line depth issues? Only time will tell. If Crawford can get back to his early season heroics, and the Blackhawks dazzling offensive weapons can get back on track it’s not going to be nearly as concerning, though.
Unfortunately, we will have to wait and see as Crawford has officially been listed as day to day with an upper-body injury. Hopefully, it is a precautionary measure, and Crow will return rested and ready to go for the Blackhawks playoff run.
The best thing that could happen for the #Blackhawks right now is Corey Crawford getting a few days off. He's had a very heavy workload.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 17, 2016
Unlike a lot of teams, the Blackhawks start each season with major personnel changes. It helps that they have been able to maintain their core group with Crawford, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, and Joel Quenneville, but the pieces around them are almost always a work in progress. Still, in the grand scheme of things the Blackhawks have a lot of building blocks that create a solid foundation in these core players. More than many teams have in fact.
629 games played in 7 years #Blackhawks
— bob⭕️ (@floydfan1986) March 17, 2016
This season saw some of the most painful changes, as well as some of the biggest changes in the day to day rotations over the course of the season. The defense has rarely been the same group from night to night, and there has been an endless number of healthy scratches and bottom line mashups with an abundance of forwards getting time in the absences of Marcus Kruger and Hossa.
It has also been the season of the rookie with an uncharacteristically high number of rookies making it into the lineup at some point. So, the fact that it has taken the team this long to hit a skid is quite honestly impressive.
Because there have been so many young players added to the mix, fatigue is another factor as many of them have not had to endure the grind of a lengthy regular season in the NHL with back to backs, and extended road trips before. And the rest of the players have certainly seen more than their fair share of hockey over the last seven seasons. The most of any team in the league since the 2009-10 season (629) and that doesn’t include two Olympics for many of the key players.
There can be no excuses at this point. They win as a team and lose as a team, no matter how fatigued they may be. Every other team has the same 82 game season and at this stage, no one is immune to fatigue.
The time has come for this group to dig deeper and find ways to win as the playoffs are a mere 11 games away. For the new players, they have precious few minutes left to make their case to be on the roster when the real show begins. For the Veterans, this is simply about finding the next level.
There is no more time for figuring things out. Dale Weise has yet to find his rhythm in Chicago while Tomas Fleischmann and Christian Ehrhoff have certainly made strong cases for their playoff positions. Andrew Ladd has come in and seamlessly found his way back, but the question for him will be where he is deployed, as the lines are currently in flux until the team can get back into the win column.
The Hot Seat
The players that need to make a statement now will have a very hard time doing it, as the minutes are only going to become more limited after Kruger returns (likely next week).
Richard Panik is a player that would desperately like to find a way to factor in during the playoffs, and he has had some moments that have likely made him stand out to the coaching staff, but Tomas Fleischmann has been a bigger factor of late leading to a series of healthy scratches for Panik. He’s going to have to make every opportunity memorable in order to not suffer the same fate in the playoffs.
Brandon Mashinter seems to have some kind of unseen draw for Joel Quenneville as nearly everyone is wondering why he has a roster spot to play six or seven minutes a night when there are certainly more skilled players who would be capable of playing a bigger role.
Weise and Panik are far more skilled players, but Quenneville seems to prefer the bigger body of Mashinter. However, he seems destined to fulfill Bickell’s role of last year as it is highly unlikely he will be a major contributor and there are a number of options that would be a marked upgrade both offensively and defensively over Mash.
Dennis Rasmussen has been pretty good this season as well, but with the return of Kruger, he seems destined to fall out of the lineup. However, there is a chance he could still be on reserve should they need the depth in the playoffs.
Backing up the Backup
It would seem that Michael Leighton is about to find his way into the fold with Scott Darling having less than stellar efforts of late and Crawford’s day to day status. It is likely a cautious move by the Blackhawks to ensure Crawford is ready to go in a couple of weeks, but it will be interesting to see what Leighton brings to the table regardless.
There is also a chance they are taking a look at him for another option in the playoffs with Darling not looking quite as solid as he did last season thus far. However, one would think he would have to put on one heck of a show in order to drop Darling out of the number two spot, but stranger things have happened, and Leighton has been having a great year in Rockford with the IceHogs.
#Blackhawks announced Corey Crawford is injured and won't travel to Winnipeg. They've recalled AHL shutout King Michael Leighton.
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) March 17, 2016
Leighton is a journeyman netminder who was drafted 165th overall in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. He played two seasons in Chicago but spent much of his NHL career with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Philadelphia Flyers. In fact, Leighton was the netminder for the Flyers when Kane scored the Cup-winning goal in 2010. So, his ties to the organization run deep. He has played a total of 105 NHL games with various stops along the way, but recently he has been with the IceHogs.
In Rockford, he has played 42 games this season and holds a 22-13-4 record with a .920 save percentage and a 2.26 goals against average. He has also recorded five shutouts this season and broke an AHL shutout record that has stood for 59 years!
Out of the Crow’s Nest
Speaking of Darling, he’s going to need to get back on track. Last year, he had an outstanding season and was the hero of the first round against the Nashville Predators. He started 13 games last season and finished with a 9-4-0 record with a .936 save percentage and 1.94 goals against average and a shutout.
This season has not been nearly as successful. Darling has 14 games started, with a 6-6-2 record. He carries a .912 save percentage and 2.60 goals against average. Granted, the team has not played nearly as well in front of Darling this season, but it is clear that he and the coaching staff are looking for better numbers.
Darling is a journeyman as well with a long history in a number of leagues that the average fan didn’t even know existed, and that perseverance and experience are likely to work in his favor. He knows how hard it was to get where he is, and he will do whatever it takes to hang onto his spot.
After his heroics last season, it is highly unlikely anything short of outstanding will put his spot in jeopardy, but anytime a depth goalie is called up it has to cross a backups mind. Darling, after all, was called up to backup Antti Raanta when Crawford was injured last year, and he eventually took Raanta’s spot when Crow returned.
It is unclear how long Crawford is going to be out, so this will be a good test for Darling. And for Leighton, it would seem.
All season long, Kane has been the most consistent player on the Blackhawks. Everyone knew that the cold streak would come eventually, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he is in the middle of a thaw right now. What has made it worse is that the line that has been clicking all year has gone into a deep freeze together.
On Wednesday night, Kane and Anisimov were able to chip off a little bit of the ice with each adding an assist in their loss to the Flyers (from separate lines as they were finally subjected to Quenneville’s Q-sinart Line Blender).
Of course, Kane and Toews were reunited on Wednesday, and they are the equivalent of a meal in space, add one to the other and you have instant magic. However, the Blackhawks are a far deeper and more balanced team when they don’t have to resort to the nuclear option to get the offense going, so I would expect this to be a brief little foray intended to provide a spark.
Wednesday’s game was also a positive sign as the team looked much more effective through much of the game. However, it still ended without a point in the standings. The real positive was that St. Louis also lost, so they didn’t lose any additional ground.
Unfortunately, on Thursday, both the Nashville Predators and the Dallas Stars Won. So, Nashville has crept to within three games of the Blackhawks, and the Stars have jumped out to a five-game lead at the top of the Central. What’s worse is that the Los Angeles Kings have also moved ahead of the Blackhawks, meaning that home ice advantage is in jeopardy throughout the playoffs if the Blackhawks don’t get on track quickly.
Eleven Game Stand
The Blackhawks have eleven games left and are likely hoping to finish strong. They finish the season with only three of those games coming against teams that are in the playoffs (Dallas, Boston, and St. Louis), and one team that is barely outside (Minnesota). The rest of the games are against teams that are likely to miss the playoffs.
However, the Blackhawks are going to need to play every game like a must-win. They can’t sleep on the young and talented Arizona Coyotes. They also need to help Ladd get a win in his return to Winnipeg, and they have to avenge their embarrassing loss in the Stadium Series to Minnesota (twice).
They are going to have to find reasons to get motivated against the teams that may not be playing in late april or beyond, even though their spot in the playoffs is not really in jeopardy at the moment (though where they finish is still very much in question). Certainly, it would be better to end on a high note than enter the playoffs in a wild card slot.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 18, 2016
The Blackhawks are fortunate in that they have five home games remaining, though lately that hasn’t been as much of a factor as it was earlier in the season having lost their last two home games. Whatever they do, they are going to have to relocate that killer instinct that has made them so strong in the last couple of seasons.
The time to start pulling out wins is now, the games don’t get any bigger than they are now with each one being a difference maker. There is still a chance to finish on top, but it is going to take a full team effort from here on out. One thing is certain, the Blackhawks have been here before and they know what they need to do to right the ship.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske