The "D"-termining factor for the Blackhawks

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The "D"-termining factor for the Blackhawks

"If you look at our goals-against, we gotta tighten up. I think we have the team for it and that's too high right now. Hopefully, on the road trip, we can focus on keeping the goals-against down and have a great last 30 games."

Niklas Hjalmarsson sees it like the rest of us.

Dave Bolland knows it, too.

"Our defensive game -- that's what I think everybody's breaking down, taking care of our own zone. That's one thing we need to focus on," Bolland said.

Giving up just two goals (before the empty-netter) in the rematch against Nashville was an improvement from Saturday night. But even those were off costly turnovers in their own zone that the Predators, well...preyed on, and cashed in.

"Generous" is how Joel Quenneville called it. And it's those mistakes against one of the league's hottest teams and hottest goaltenders that basically hands over two points to a division rival, especially when you're playing without two of your top three offensive players.

Can the Blackhawks clean things up in these last 30 games with the personnel that's in place? It will be the biggest determining factor in where they finish in the Central and West, and how long they last in the playoffs.

The Hawks are the only NHL team without a shutout. The goaltending needs to be better, but more importantly, the entire group in front of them must improve a 2.82 GAA that puts them tied for 20th in the NHL. Last season, the Hawks had the league's 12th-best defense. When they won the Stanley Cup, they ranked sixth.

Right now, just two teams in the West (Anaheim and Columbus) own a worst goals-against average. Of the three division rivals they'll meet 10 times over the final 26 games that will be the biggest determining factor where they'll finish, St. Louis leads the league in that category, Detroit is fifth and Nashville ninth.

The top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will get five days off the ice before returning to practice Monday in Vancouver. From a team standpoint, it's good they're not involved in All-Star weekend, as their ice times have been climbing once again -- Keith back to averaging more than 26 minutes, second in the league. They'll need to be great the rest of the way, but all of their teammates have to be much better.

"We're one of the top teams that has a lot of goals-against," Keith said Tuesday morning. "It's something we need to continue to get better at. It has to be a full team effort -- it's not one player or one group, it's the team."

Quenneville didn't hesitate a short time later when asked about what'll hold this team's fate after this weekend.

"Tighter defensively as a team. We all have some responsibilities in how we play without the puck," Quenneville said. "It's the quality of chances we're giving up and the type of goals. We've got to get better in that area going on the road. It doesn't have to be pretty. I think we'll be playing uglier games."

There's no doubt the coachng staff's message is out, but the execution's been missing and has kept the Hawks from cashing in even more than they did in playing 19 of the last 26 at home following the Circus Trip. As they enter the nine-game stretch that keeps them out of the United Center for nearly four weeks, a "whatever it takes" attitude will be what it takes. Two points will be more important than style points.

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

Will lopsided loss shake Blackhawks from their slumber?

The Blackhawks have talked the past several games now about how they need to play better, how they need to get back to their 60-minute game. But even when you tell yourself you have to improve the message doesn't always translate into immediate action. That's especially true if, despite so-so play, you're still managing victories or still eking out a point.

Sometimes, you need a jolt to realize you have to get better. Well, that thud the Blackhawks made in South Florida ought to get their attention. 

The Blackhawks' 7-0 loss to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, that "ugly, ugly game," as coach Joel Quenneville, is the latest in what's been a mediocre stretch for the team. They've been leaning on their goaltending again (please see Minnesota, Montreal, Ottawa and Dallas games). Or they've been leaning on their ability to wake up in the third period after sleepwalking through the first two. Sixty-minute games and four-line rotations, such a big part of the Blackhawks' success through February and early March, have been absent.

Call it the Blackhawks' mid-March malaise.

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It hasn't been more painful because the Blackhawks have still found ways to get points. Or at least they did until Saturday night, when two "yapping" penalties – Quenneville's (accurate) description of Ryan Hartman and Marcus Kruger's unsportsmanlike calls – started the Blackhawks' demise against the Panthers. Players told the traveling media following the game that this was a wake-up call. It ought to be.

Granted, the Blackhawks' late-season issues aren't as bad as some of their fellow Western Conference teams. The Minnesota Wild are 3-10-1 in March. The San Jose Sharks have lost six in a row. This also isn't the first time the Blackhawks have gone through this late-season mediocrity.

Entering the 2015 postseason they struggled to score goals and lost four in a row (five goals in those four games). It turned out alright. Still, best to avoid bad habits.

Perhaps the Blackhawks are in a bit of a swoon because, really, there's not much for which to play in these final few games. They don't care if they win the Presidents' Trophy (and they probably won't). They're currently in first place by seven points following the Wild's 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday. Whether the Blackhawks finish first or second, they'll start this postseason at home. 

So is this panic-inducing? No. Is it a concern? Certainly. The Blackhawks can't start thinking they'll automatically flip the switch as soon as the postseason begins.

The Blackhawks want to get their four-line rotation going again. Artem Anisimov returning in the next week or two will certainly help that. They want to get their overall game going again. The Blackhawks have been telling themselves what needs to be done for a few games now. Maybe they needed a wake-up call. On Saturday, they got it. 

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

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