Perhaps I overreached by anointing the Blackhawks as the automatic Western Conference Champions this year. Certainly the Hawks are a great team. As a transplanted Bostonian, I’m only halfway through a 12-step recovery program to cope with Game 6 of the Finals last year. But it appears as though the Hawks’ flaws are manifesting themselves and now they’ve dropped to second place in the Central Division. They lost in OT last night at the Saddledome in Calgary while the St. Louis Blues shut out the New Jersey Devils. These coinciding events leave the Hawks seemingly tied with the Blues but because of games played and less wins the Hawks are in second.
Certainly all is not lost for the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but there are realities that need to be considered as the Hawks proceed through the rest of the regular season and on to the pseudo-season that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s start with their defensive play, which is not quite up to championship caliber. While Corey Crawford played tremendously in last year’s cup run, he’s come back down to earth. And the PK is one of the worst in the league. Offensively, some of their biggest offensive threats haven’t been quite so potent recently. Top-line winger Bryan Bickell was benched for a game for lackluster performance, and the team hasn’t gotten contributions up and down the lineup like they did last year when they lit the league on fire. I guess benching the entire team is impractical, but it seems like a shock to the system is required to finish up in first.
A look inside the numbers identifies the downturn. They’ve lost four in a row and they’re 3-3-4 over the last ten, which was just treading water before submerging just below the surface to second. So far the Hawks are a +41 in goal differential, while having given up an astonishing 154 goals. The Buffalo Sabres – the worst team in hockey – have given up fewer goals. The Hawks have played the most games of any team in the league. They are “tied” with St. Louis but have three games in hand and haven’t fared well in the head-to-head match-ups. None of us should need to be reminded that the Blues are a perennial nemesis and obstacle to winning the division.
The Blackhawks continue their trip out west tonight when they travel to Vancouver, who’s having a really tough season. The Canucks are starting to realize the downside of the Sedin twins and their goalie situation isn’t so good. Chicago was supposed to beat up on the first two teams of this road trip, with Calgary being one of the worst teams in the conference and Vancouver being only slightly less worse. After tonight it’s off to San Jose, who’s playing extremely well and en route to the playoffs. After the Sharks, the Hawks confront the upper class of the conference as they swing through LA, Anaheim and Phoenix. These teams are going to want to kick the Hawks while they’re down after what Chicago did to all of them last year. If the Hawks can salvage a five-hundred record on this extremely lengthy road trip – that won’t see them back on home ice until after the Olympics – then they may be poised for a scorching March.