Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish

Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish
March 27, 2010, 12:13 am
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Friday, March 26, 2010
7:06 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Its time for some unsurprising, yet still sobering news about the Blackhawks: In the second half of the season, they just havent been very good.

Choosing the slightly arbitrary (but telling) midpoint of Game 45the meltdown in Minneapolis, when the Blackhawks turned a 5-1, third period lead into a 6-5 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wildits clear just how pedestrian the Hometown Heroes have been for the balance of 2010.

Taking the ice at Minnesota on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks were 31-10-3, playing at an extraordinary clip. Their .739 points percentage then would be better even than the current Capitals, and that includes Washingtons long winning streak and significantly weaker Eastern Conference schedule.

Counting the Wild setback and running up to the worst loss of the season last night at Columbus, the Blackhawks have gone 15-10-4 having played about three-quarters of this second half of the season. That record, translating to a .586 points percentage, is deceiving, because the league average stands at .559, and the percentage for the current No. 8 seed in the West, the Detroit Red Wings, is .596.

Thats rightat the clip the Blackhawks have been playing since Game 45, they wouldnt even make the playoffs in the West.

Theres a lot to point fingers at when trying to explain how a team that started out so well has taken such a poor turn.

Some reasons are perfectly legitimate. Olympic fatigue, which has affected some players (Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all carry minus ratings since the break) and not others (Patrick Kane has remained a scoring threat and has played even, Marian Hossa has been a plus player and the teams most dangerous scorer). Injuries to the blue linefor a couple of games the Blackhawks were absent three of their top five defensemen in losing Seabrook, Brian Campbell, and Kim Johnssonhas played a role.
But the more significant issues that have set Chicago into a slump have little to do with outside forces and more to do with whats reflecting back in those dressing-room mirrors.
The Blackhawks power play catches a lot of flak, and its preposterously impotent given the firepower of this Chicago team, but overall it ranks 11th in the league at .187, nothing that should set anyones hair on fire either way.

Team defense has been shambolic since the Minnesota meltdown, and particularly bad since the huge road trip the team shoved off on just one week later. Seabrook was at plus-22 and 20 points heading into action vs. the Wild, and in 27 games since is a minus-five with just four points. His partner, Keith, has shouldered a massive minutes load all season longat 26:43 per game hes ate the second-most minutes of anyone in the leagueand these days hes skating in mud, reaching with stick rather than throwing the body. Niklas Hjalmarsson, currently No. 3 on the defensive depth chart, is playing in his first full season. Hes battled injury on and off, which might be a harbinger of dangerous things given his primary value as a defenseman isnt in puck possession or speed but toughness.

The goalie messdenied all season long by analysts too quick to point to goals allowed as an end-all of netminder performancewas resolved by Cristobal Huet backing out of the competition last night. But overall, the condition of the Chicago net is worse than ever. Yes, Antti Niemi shows signs of getting back on the roll he was on early in the season, where it wasnt far-fetched to consider him a Calder Trophy candidate. But if his three-game run of great play (including two shutouts and discounting five garbage minutes last night) is exception and not rule, the Blackhawks are in trouble. Niemi had just five games saving less than .900 of shots in his first 14 leading up to Jan. 9something thats happened in 10 of 16 games since. (If you trim away his last four games, wiping his last two shutouts off the board, hes failed to stop at least a .900 rate in eight of 12 games.)

Niemi was an above-average goalie in the first half of the season, and below average since then. Right now, his .912 save percentage puts squarely in the middle among NHL netminders. If he can maintain that level of playand his recent run indicates thats a fair expectation, increased workload with Huet out of the picture or notno Blackhawks fan will be howling about his performance in the crease.

But speaking of the goaltending, it may be time to levy a little criticism Joel Quennevilles way. For all the success the team has had this seasonits important to remember that the team still leads the Western Conference, for crying out loudseveral of his decisions and tendencies have been suspect. Seems Q might coach a bit passive-aggressively.
He trusts his team, and the leadership in the dressing room. In Toews, he has one of the strongest young stand-up players in the game policing the team. But to have waited a couple of dozen games to lay into his faltering defense, as he finally got around to doing only on the Blackhawks recent mini-road trip west, seems a matter of too much trust.
And on the flip side, there is Quennevilles almost-nightly Line-o-Rama, wherein the mentor pounds the randomizer button a period or so into the game when things arent quite clicking. Last night, Troy Brouwer was punished for an early mistake leading to an odd-man rush and found himself demoted to the fourth line.

That kind of haste to stir lines up is not productive for the Blackhawks. Were not talking about a San Jose Sharks club, which boasts a clear superstar line, and lets the rest of the schmoes fall as they may. Chicago is constructed as a deep offensive team that needs production nine, or even 12, down. The top line of Toews-Kane-Brouwer has been aces. The second line, Dave Bolland centering Hossa and Patrick Sharp, has clicked. The so-called checking line, with John Madden centering Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, has been scoring goals at a one per game clip since its formation. To jumble all of them up whimsically is counter-intuitive for the Blackhawks.

So, theres blame to pass around given the Blackhawks second-half slump. With two-thirds of their remaining nine games left against non-playoff teams, there is still room to get healthy, build momentum and make a deeper run into the playoffs than last season.

The days are dripping short on the season. Sunday marks the start of potentially the most exciting stretch of hockey in Blackhawks history. But as presently constituted, the Hometown Heroes are closer to a heartbreaking upset than a stirring Stanley Cup run.
Lets hope that with the title belt card already played, Coach Q has one more, sustainable, trick up his sleeve.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.