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. 

Hawks Talk Podcast: Can anybody stop the Blackhawks?

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Can anybody stop the Blackhawks?

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Steve Konroyd discuss the team's latest run to the top of the Western Conference standings, plus the loss of Artem Anisimov and the recent addition of John Hayden.

Konroyd also break downs Nick Schmaltz's struggles in the faceoff circle, the Blackhawks' pursuit of the Presidents' Trophy and the Minnesota Wild's recent losing skid.

Listen to the latest episode of the Hawks Talk Podcast below.

Thoughts and musings on a Blackhawks off day

Thoughts and musings on a Blackhawks off day

The Blackhawks continue on their road trip but we are watching from afar. Up close or from here, it doesn't matter: The Blackhawks continue to surge at the right time and, going back to the start of February, have now won 14 of their last 17 games. Entering Saturday night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Blackhawks sit atop the Western Conference with a three-point lead over the Minnesota Wild.

Since we're not traveling, we're thinking. And musing. So here are some thoughts and muses regarding the Blackhawks' last few games.

***

The Blackhawks and Scott Darling said the backup goaltender was fine, despite coming back in 10 days off a hand injury that originally had a three-week timeline. Apparently so. Darling was stellar on Thursday night, stopping 33 of 34 shots in the Blackhawks' 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators.

Missing a few games, Darling had no rust. Good thing, because the Senators gave him a steady dose of shots, including some great looks in the third period. So with 12 games remaining before the playoffs, it looks like the Blackhawks are ending the regular season the way they started it: winning with top-notch goaltending.

And the Blackhawks' goaltenders have once again been busy. In his last two starts against Minnesota and Montreal, Corey Crawford saw 44 and 42 shots, respectively. Darling saw 34 on Thursday. Are the Blackhawks relying too much on goaltending again? Well, given those shot totals against the Wild and Montreal Canadiens, you could argue that.

It helps that, offensively, the Blackhawks have done a lot with a little. They took a 2-0 lead over Minnesota on their first two shots and a 2-0 lead midway through their game in Montreal. The Blackhawks finished with 22 shots against Minnesota, 24 against the Canadiens. They had a few more shots and took a bit longer to break through vs. Ottawa (credit Senators goaltender Mike Condon for that). But even with leads, Darling and Crawford have been pulling their share of weight lately.

*** 

Nick Schmaltz didn't have to get the reminder to shoot more — he knows that already. Still, be it the Blackhawks' prompting or his own, Schmaltz responded on Thursday with three shots against the Ottawa Senators.

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Now can he stay consistent with it? Shot totals have been feast or famine for Schmaltz lately. He had three against Ottawa, Detroit and Pittsburgh, zero vs. Montreal and Minnesota. The Blackhawks like Schmaltz's shot and encourage him to take it more often, but confidence in taking that shot is like everything else with a young player: it takes time. Schmaltz regained confidence in his overall game, and it shows. He had confidence to play second-line center in Artem Anisimov's injury absence because that's the position he's played most of his career. The confidence to take that shot more consistently will come, too.

***

Richard Panik falls under the “he should shoot more” category, too, but maybe it's time to just let him be on that subject. Through 70 games Panik has 132 shots, an average of less than two per game. He also has 18 goals. Panik's strength, much like Anisimov's, has been being at or near the net. Both have had most of their production there, either planting and waiting for a pass or cleaning up on rebounds. (By the way, to further illustrate our point, Anisimov has 22 goals on just 105 shots this season.) I understand the shoot-more demand for some players but for others, it's more about being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to do when they're there. Panik has been great with that all season.

***

This last thought is courtesy of a two-part tweet from Pierre LeBrun on Thursday night, in which he credits the Blackhawks for once again going through turnover yet thriving in the wake of it. Among the responses was this: why no Jack Adams talk for coach Joel Quenneville?

When that topic arises, Quenneville gets the Crawford-esque argument: “of course he's good. Look at the team he's got.” It's easy to look at the Blackhawks' core, the one that's been in place for several seasons and three Stanley Cups, and put all the credit on them. They deserve a lot of it. But it's also about knowing who to put with who, and Quenneville, (sometimes maddening) line changes and all, usually gets it right. He knew how to use his rookies, who to trust and who to give more responsibility to when they showed they could handle it. So much for that fallacy of him disliking/distrusting young players, eh?

Other coaches are probably going to get more Jack Adams notice this season, especially if their teams are finding new success (please see John Tortorella in Columbus). But there's something to be said for sustaining success through changes, and Quenneville has done that.