The Chicago Blackhawks might have mistaken themselves for the Chicago Cubs or Bears last week, going into hibernation mode with winter settling in.
The team did not have a game scheduled between Monday-Thursday and promptly slept through the weekend as well in home losses to the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars.
As if being blown out last night by the Stars on home ice wasn’t already enough, the Blackhawks have squandered chances since the start of the new year to gain ground in the closely-contested Central Division, where each loss opines to a seemingly insurmountable opportunity cost.
Accustomed to being an annual Stanley Cup favorite, the Hawks are listing lately and are losing ground at the wrong time of the year.
Over the course of a 82-game NHL regular season, one might be under the impression that you can afford to take games off and skate through them when your team is as talented as the Blackhawks are.
Those sentiments would be extremely misguided, and if the team felt that way last week, they’re certainly paying for it now as the inability to beat Central Division foes recently has dropped the Blackhawks to the cusp of being a Wild-Card team in the standings.
Central Division Standings
TEAM GP W L OTL PTS
NASHVILLE 44 30 10 4 64
ST. LOUIS 45 28 13 4 60
CHICAGO 45 28 15 2 58
WINNIPEG 47 25 14 8 58
DALLAS 45 21 17 7 49
COLORADO 46 19 17 10 48
MINNESOTA 44 20 19 5 45
Since January 1st, the Blackhawks are 3-5-0 with losses against division foes Colorado, Winnipeg and Dallas. That stretch includes one overtime win in a poor performance at Dallas and two wins over hapless Minnesota.
In the same time frame, the Predators and Blues have both gone 6-1-1. Winnipeg is 6-2-1 over that time frame, winners of four straight at present including Friday’s win over the Blackhawks, whom they’ve owned dating back to last season.
With Nashville’s Pekka Rinne suffering an injury early last week that has been expected to keep him out for three-to-five weeks, the Blackhawks and Blues certainly had to be licking their chops with the presented opportunity to move up in the Central. But two straight losses for Chicago since the injury coupled with Nashville’s 1-1-0 record have dropped the Hawks, while Nashville has a game in hand.
Struggle on Central Stage
Last night’s embarrassing 6-3 home defeat to Dallas continued a disturbing recent trend for the Blackhawks; they were outworked with the game on the line.
Usually the most dominant puck-possession team in the league, the Blackhawks had been outshot in four straight games coming into Sunday night’s tilt. While the Blackhawks outshot the Stars 41-34, the home team was dusted in a crucial third period, getting thoroughly outplayed as Dallas scored three times for the win.
The Blackhawks disappeared in seemingly every aspect of the game in the third period, from getting thoroughly outshot to the defense continuing to play poorly to Corey Crawford’s continued enigmatic play.
Crawford especially was vexing, showing flashes of brilliance one moment and exiguous play on the next as he continues to be inconsistent and perhaps overplayed since returning from injury.
The Blackhawks are 12-7-0 in the Central this season and simply look bored and complacent at present, going through the motions against teams that they should be soundly defeating.
Distractions Slowing Down Blackhawks
Both losses to Winnipeg and Dallas were especially damning knowing that in each game the opponent was playing the back end of a back-to-back and the host Blackhawks were well rested.
But with the season slowing down at the moment due to the All Star Game festivities planned this weekend, the Blackhawks–who will be well represented in Columbus at the game–have drawn complacent this month thus far, suffering through one distraction after another.
It started with the 2015 NHL Winter Classic, the second time the team has been selected to play in the game (and the second time it has lost in it) and the hype leading up to the game due to the presence of the documentary crew from EPIX filming the team.
The oddities of the NHL schedule that gave the Blackhawks four days off in the middle of the season but force other teams like Winnipeg to play seven games in 11 nights also illustrate exactly why those teams are trending in opposite directions.
Despite the NHL’s belief that more time off is beneficiary to teams, the inverse is true; the less time in between games, the better. The Blackhawks themselves exemplified this case during the 2012-2013 lockout shortened season, when the Blackhawks ran ramshod over the league in the regular season and captured the Stanley Cup by essentially playing every other day.
Now, with the added distraction of a cozy weekend off for most of the players while five Blackhawks will represent the team in the All Star Game, the team will try to pick up the pieces and get back to work with a seven-game road trip beginning Wednesday.
With Rinne still out of the picture, the Hawks would do well to wake up over that stretch if they want to compete for the Central Division title.
Derek Wolff is a graduate of Grand Valley State University, sportswriter for various publications and baseball coach.