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.