The Chicago Blackhawks’ second round of matchups against the Florida Panthers this weekend was a case of déjà vu. These teams first met during the start of the NHL season on Jan. 17 and 19. The Blackhawks lost the first game 5-2 and the second game 5-4 in overtime.
The Blackhawks wanted to come into this series and make a statement that they weren’t going to let the past haunt them. Unfortunately, it did just that. They faced two devastating losses: 4-2 on March 13 and 6-3 on March 15. Chicago has lost four of their last five games, and most of the factors that helped them reach the fourth seed in the Discover Central Division are now failing them badly. Here are some takeaways from the series.
The Blackhawks haven’t had a glaring issue at center for a while. They have strong players at the position, including Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, and Dylan Strome, so it wasn’t considered a position of “need.” However, with those three players on injured reserve, the position now needs urgent attention. The pressure has been on these centers: David Kampf, Carl Soderberg, Ryan Carpenter, Philipp Kurashev, and Pius Suter, and it hasn’t been pretty. Granted, Kurashev and Suter are rookies and need more time to learn and grow in the position. Moreover, Kampf, Soderberg, and Carpenter have been holding up their end of the bargain in the dot.
Soderberg’s faceoff percentage (FO%) is 50 percent, Carpenter’s FO% is 54.5 percent, and Kamp’s FO% is 55.8 percent. Their stats lead the team, but it’s not enough. The overall team FO% is 46.4 percent, ranked at 27th in the league. That percentage was glaringly evident during the Panther series. Over the two-game duration, the Blackhawks’ FO% was 36 percent. That is not sustainable, and if they want to get back on their feet, it starts in the faceoff circle.
Unanswered Goals Streak
The most disheartening thing about the Blackhawks’ tough stretch is the unanswered goals streak. It started during their matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7. They were up 3-0 in the second period, and the Lightning scored six unanswered goals to win the game. When the team faced the Dallas Stars on March 9, they gave up four unanswered goals in a 6-1 loss. During the Panthers’ series, Chicago gave up four unanswered goals in the first game and five in the second game. What pours salt in the wound is the fact the Hawks had the lead in both games: a 1-0 lead in the first game and a 3-1 lead in the second game.
In general, the Blackhawks have done a really good job of letting opponents get back into games this season. Before, it wasn’t hurting them because they were facing struggling teams like the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Therefore, it still resulted in wins. The Lightning, Stars, and Panthers are a different ballgame. Their habit of not being able to close out games has finally caught up to them. Giving up consecutive goals is another trend that is unsustainable.
Special Teams Regressing
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the Blackhawks’ hot power play. They were a top-two power play in the league at one point this season, with a success rate of over 30%. Now, it is ranked third in the league with a 28.3% success rate. Most nights, the team has won games because of their power play alone. It has done a good job of hiding the team’s scoring woes at five-on-five. So when the power play isn’t producing, it usually leads to a loss, which is exactly what happened in Florida. The team went 0/8 on the power play during the series. The second game was horrendous for this unit as well. During the Hawks’ four power play opportunities, they only had ONE shot on goal. No, that is not a typo. That is flat-out embarrassing from a unit that is supposed to be top 10 in the league.
The Panthers’ penalty kill is ranked 15th in the league, with a 79.8% success rate, so it wasn’t a case of them being “unbeatable.” A lot of it came down to mental mistakes. Sloppy passing, bad zone entries — you name any struggle you could possibly have on a power play, it happened. That wasn’t even the worst part, though. They ended up allowing a shorthanded goal to Florida’s center, Aleksander Barkov, towards the end of the third period. That was the nail in the coffin.
When it comes to the penalty kill, it has been just as messy. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill ranks 27th in the league, with a 73.1% success rate. For most of the season, it hasn’t affected them too much. Now, it’s a problem. They go on binges where it either looks phenomenal or putrid. There’s no in-between.
In their previous game against the Stars, they went 5/5 on the penalty kill. It carried over during the first game against the Panthers, where they went 2/2. Then the wheels came falling off during the second game when the penalty kill went 1/3. The team was up 1-0 when the Panthers scored a power play goal to tie it 1-1 towards the end of the first period. Chicago was winning 3-1 in the second period when Florida scored another power play goal to make it 3-2. They couldn’t stop the Panthers’ attack for the rest of the game. You could argue that the game was lost by the special teams’ performance alone.
The one positive aspect to come from the series has been the performance of left wing Brandon Hagel. He has been a bright spot on the Blackhawks’ roster ever since he made his debut on Jan. 19. He is a pure workhorse. He has a hustle and a work ethic that is noticeable on every shift. Whether it’s winning board battles, outskating opponents, or re-gaining possession of the puck, he excels at everything. However, his performance didn’t always show up on the score sheet. It took him 18 NHL games to finally get his first goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 23. The Florida series rewarded him big time. During the first game, he and Dominik Kubalik connected for one of the prettiest goals of the season for a 1-0 lead in the second period.
During the second game, Hagel scored during the second period to give the Blackhawks a 3-1 lead. With his two goals in back-to-back games, he has extended his point streak to three games. He has been so fun to watch, and I think he will be giving nightmares to the Panthers for the foreseeable future. You love to see it.
This series was brutal. The team is now 0-4 against the Cats, and the Hawks will face them four more times before the end of the season. The factors aforementioned cannot keep plaguing them. Something has to give, or this downward spiral could affect their playoff fate.
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