Wednesday, February 15, 2012

9 games & counting...

The Blackhawks find themselves in a frightening nosedive in the Western conference that could actually see them fall out of a playoff spot, after they were challenging for 1st overall in the entire NHL mere weeks ago.

The dismaying part is the way they have lost many of these games - there seems to be a general lack of willingness to pay the price, defensively in particular, to prevent easy goals against. Even worse was the lack of response to ANOTHER complete humiliation by the 29th place team in Edmonton, where Sam Gagner got his name alongside a guy named Gretzky in the Oilers' record book.

The hawks weaknesses as a team have finally caught up to them, tho they were masked the first half of the season thanks to a very favorable schedule that included many home games & weaker teams.  Even while winning, they were near the bottom in goals against, which should have created more urgency with the GM to add a physical top 4 defenseman, to help take some of the workload off Keith & Seabrook.

It appears Bowman has overrated his team and instead of leveraging the advantage of a fast start to the season to make a deal with a struggling team in November/December to fill the hawks obvious holes, he said he was happy with the team & did nothing.

Now, I'm sure there is considerable angst as the team spirals downward with a distinct possibility of missing the playoffs altogether, given the difficulty of their remaining schedule.

There is now even speculation that hawks are looking for a goaltender, as well as talk of firing the coach - two extreme moves that would reflect absolute panic on the part of management and which would make things actually worse instead of better.

The hawks weaknesses haven't changed since the start of the season.

Expecting a 20 yr old to fill the top 4 skates of departed Bryan Campbell was & is simply unrealistic, and it should have been obvious early on, if not before, that Montador, O'Donnell & Lepisto were at best 5/6 defensemen not capable of playing top 4 minutes on a regular basis and replacing the departed Campbell & Campoli.   Leddy has played well, perhaps even better than expected, but he still is inexperienced and subject to stretches of inconsistency.  His pairing partner Hjalmarsson, clearly misses his former partner Campbell' steadying influence in puck possession and quick transition, which helped to neutralize opponent's forecheck.  Now, Hjalmarsson seems to have lost his confidence and too often simply gets rid of the puck when pressured without looking or thinking..resulting in turnovers and sustained zone pressure.

In terms of forwards, the hawks have an excellent core, but rely too much on finesse and the complementary cast has not served to take any pressure off them.  Now, it is apparent the core simply can't carry the team offensively and defensively they have been exposed by focusing too much on offense.

The personnel has changed considerably from the 2010 cup team & not for the better - yet the hawks have failed to adjust to this reality.  They still focus on offense first, at the expense of defense and their goaltending.  Crawford had an excellent rookie year, but the hawks are even weaker defensively this year and given up too many excellent chances against - which eventually undermines the confidence of any goalie, especially one in only their 2nd year in the NHL.

The hawks simply haven't committed enough to team defense - whether it is taking the body in front of their goaltender, blocking shots, hitting players to eliminate them from the play.  It seems they challenge teams on speed & skill alone as they did in 2010, but are now learning that simply isn't enough.  And as the losing grows, there is an apparent attempt by players to make unrealistic individual efforts to beat 2 or 3 opposing players at the same time that result in turnovers & more good chances against (& create more frustration when it results in a goal) rather than making smart, simple plays and relying on linemates for support.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of all this is that these weaknesses should not be a be a revelation to anyone who has regularly watched the team this season (or even last season), yet the GM, despite having the leverage of early season success, cap room & prospect depth, has failed to act to address those weaknesses. Now there is apparent panic setting in.  Deals made in desperation generally aren't good deals that work out...

The game tomorrow night in New York vs. the Rangers is the biggest game of the season.  The hawks need to look at this as an opportunity to not only put an end to the losing streak, but more importantly, to re-create the belief within themselves that they can compete with & even beat top teams.  A win helps their mental state and changes their outlook from negative to positive, which is certainly needed if they wish to put their season back on track.

A loss on the other hand,  may be devastating, especially if they get blown out ala Edmonton style and may result in a panic move by management to try to right the ship, which will likely only make things worse. They need to show more urgency and willingness as a team to pay the price at both ends of the ice and support each other & especially their goaltender more.

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