Monday, Nov. 8, 2010
By Chris Boden
If Jeremy Morin's trip back to Rockford Monday means Dave Bolland is back from injury Wednesday, the Blackhawks will have all hands on deck for the first time this season. And they'll be out of excuses.
Not that they're making any inside the locker room. They admit to their mediocrity, which is proven by their record. Sunday's loss to Edmonton was light years better than their previous loss to the Oilers nine days earlier. Less humiliating, but more frustrating. Those baby faces will go into opponents' rinks a year or two from now and provide headaches, but there's no way that team should march into the United Center right now and deny the defending champs any points, twice, in less than a week and a half.
Joel Quenneville's squad did a good enough job most of the night from an effort and responsibility standpoint. Most of the night isn't working for them right now. The NHL's busiest team the opening month is on an 82-point pace. That won't make the playoffs in the West. And with the way things are going at home, the upcoming circus trip out west just might be circled on the calendar as a welcome getaway.
Brian Campbell's calm but accurate postgame critique about the lack of consistent focus and effort -- including practice habits carrying over into games -- were welcome words, and he's only had an up-close view of it for a couple of weeks.
There were chances to put the game away in the first five minutes of the second period, but the league's second-best power play going into the game couldn't light it up versus the league's worst penalty kill. Then, when your best players are spending time trying to kill three penalties in an 11-minute span late in the second and early in the third period with a one-goal lead, it adds to the degree of difficulty. In their six home losses, the Blackhawks have been outscored 11-3 in the third period.
On the "up" side so far, Viktor Stalberg seems to be improving every game, and while they didn't connect Sunday like they did the night before in Atlanta, playing the left side with Toews and Kane is a promising combination. He also got more physical over the weekend and is showing much more overall presence when he's on the ice.
Two players whose consistent effort and hard play, in general, shouldn't be overlooked, even though the offensive results have been limited, are Tomas Kopecky and Jack Skille. The former's had enough offensive chances playing much of the time with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, but those pucks that haven't gone in as often as he'd like isn't for lack of paying the price in the dirty areas. Skille's burst and willingness to sacrifice in those same spots has impressed coaches and teammates, even though his scoring history has yet to come through. He hasn't let that frustration affect his work ethic.
Jake Dowell's held up his end of the bargain centering the fourth line alongside a carousel of wingers. But this team's best players still need to be their best players, which hasn't occurred often enough.
Finally, the Hawks' overall goals-against average of 3.00 ranks in the bottom third of the NHL to begin the week. While that reflects somewhat poorly on the numbers for Marty Turco and Corey Crawford, who've been victims of a handful of painful, quirky goals, I'd hate to think where the team might be without some important saves they've made at critical times through the first 17 games.
This team isn't alone "fighting it" at this point. All you have to do is look to the East, where the Hawks' Cup predecessor is having trouble with consistency. Pittsburgh's been battling different issues (including a terrible start by Marc-Andre Fleury and the absence of Jordan Staal), but they sit at 7-7-1. You wouldn't think they'll be on the outside looking in come April, just as you wouldn't expect the same of the Blackhawks.
But with all the points the champs have already left on the table, they'll need to find a different level soon, starting with the very basics and commitment pointed out inside the locker room after Sunday's latest loss, by one of their own.
Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.