For most of this season the Blackhawks have been living right.
They were winning plenty of games, even when they weren’t playing their best. Their goaltending has been outstanding from the start. They’ve been defensively sound for most of the season, too. Scoring? Well, that’s been hit and miss but they’ve usually gotten it when they needed it.
But lately, a lot’s been going wrong, or at least not as right as it once was. Goaltending is still great; an off game here or there, but that’s it. The scoring has disappeared for the most part. The power play has been rather quiet. And while the Blackhawks are still playing a bunch of one-goal games, they’re on the losing side of them more.
And as the new year begins, the Blackhawks are starting it like they ended the previous one: struggling to collect points. They’re in a 1-4-1 slump, their latest loss a 4-1 defeat to the St. Louis Blues in the Winter Classic on Monday. It’s been a frustrating few weeks for the Blackhawks. Yes, they’re still atop the Western Conference, one point ahead of the surging Minnesota Wild. But it’s more about how they’re playing and right now, they’re not playing well.
“I’m not sure if it’s just one thing,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We know the things we can do to be successful: just playing simple, getting pucks in when there are no plays to be made, limiting turnovers and picking the right spots to try to make those plays. Obviously we have to do a better job of it.”
Injuries don’t help; or in this case, who is injured doesn’t help. The Blackhawks did well during Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford’s three-week absences but they’re not doing nearly as well without Marian Hossa, who played just three minutes before suffering an upper-body injury against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 20.
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That’s also when the Blackhawks’ skid began.
One guy does not a team make but consider everything Hossa does: big on the power play and penalty kill and, despite being out for the last six games he’s still tied for the team lead with 16 goals (with Artem Anisimov). The Blackhawks may be missing him just a bit.
“We know we miss him. He’s a huge part of our team offensively and defensively. I mean, just a powerful player for us,” Duncan Keith said following the Winter Classic. “He hangs onto pucks and he’s hard to take the puck away from. He enhances our whole game, whether it’s puck possession, guarding and being smart with the pucks. He’s a good example for all of us.”
Still, the Blackhawks should be able to get more than two points in Hossa’s absence. To a degree, you can write it off as a midseason slump; every team has them in an 82-game season. But a bulk of the Blackhawks’ success has come from their goaltending and their eking games out.
In their four losses and one overtime loss, the Blackhawks scored a total of seven goals. Three of those goals came in one game (vs. Ottawa).
“We’re not getting the production we could use, whether we get it from our power play or top guys. We’re a better team offensively when we get some help from our defensemen, whether it’s off the rush or in zone or on the point on the power play. That could help us as well,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “But the balance offensively, we have to find a way to get ugly goals, greasy goals with Hoss gone and our power play, that’s gotta be where we were looking to generate a little bit more. But we still have to look to play a tight game.”
The Blackhawks are hardly in a terrible situation. Again, atop the Western Conference despite their slump. But as Quenneville has said often, the Blackhawks have been “fortunate” some of those victories the first half of this season. They’ll need more than fortune and goaltending during the second half.
“No panic,” van Riemsdyk said. “But really we have to start focusing on those things that will make us successful.”