Monday, December 19, 2011

Blackhawks on the Verge of Special Season

Thank God for the Hawks. With them and the Bulls, they allow us to forget about the dog and pony show going on at Halas Hall and Soldier Field every week. And although the Bulls haven't started their abbreviated season just yet, we're almost halfway through a Hawks season that has the potential to end with another parade through Chicago. Yet, that potential won't be realized unless the Hawks shore up some key problems on defense and between the pipes.

To be sure, the Hawks have some major issues on defense and at goaltender and still manage to sit in first place in the Western Conference as of this posting. That's mostly due to the unbelievably potent offense the Hawks bring to the ice every night. As a team, the Hawks are 5th in goals per game, 7th in power play percentage, 5th in shots per game, and win while shooting less often than their opponents, leading the league in winning percentage while being outshot. What this means is that not only do the Hawks score in bunches, they do it efficiently and use it to overcome defensive deficiencies that unfortunately keep the puck in the Hawks' own zone much too often.

Toews is playing at an MVP level
They've done this largely off some amazing individual efforts thus far. Jonathan Toews is playing at an MVP level (and for my money is the frontrunner for the trophy right now). Not only does Toews exhibit leadership that makes us all forget that he is only 23 years old, but right now he sits at 4th in the league in goals and 9th in overall points. But more than that, he's been the anchor of the team in the midst of the numerous Joel Quenneville line changes. He went from having Patrick Sharp and Andrew Burnette on either side of him on the first line earlier in the season to now working with Viktor Stalberg and Patrick Kane. In addition to Toews' excellent play has been the offense of Marian Hossa and Sharp. With 36 points, Hossa sits near the top of the league in total points, one more than his new linemate Sharp. I thought that the pairing of these two dynamic scorers was a clutch move by Coach Q when he abandoned the Kane-at-center experiment and moved Kane up to the first line with Toews. The move has worked great for the both of them and their center, Marcus Kruger, leading to outstanding goals like this:

Those three playmakers alone have contributed greatly to the Hawks successful season thus far, and then you add someone with the playmaking ability of Patrick Kane to the mix. Recently made the face of the premiere of the new NHL show "36," Kane plays the game with such an abundance of skill and technique that it makes him always dangerous, even when he goes through prolonged scoring droughts like he has this year. Yeah, Kane has struggled to find the net at times this year, with only 9 goals, but he found another way to contribute, adding 21 assists that puts him near the top of the league in that category. But like I said, once he starts feeling it, he's dangerous. And I think his ridiculous overtime shootout winner the other night is just the spark he's going to need:

Kane is starting to feel it
As evidenced by his additional goal last night, Kane would seem to be on the verge of some serious momentum. I think part of it stems from his ability to work on the same line as Toews again, but I also think part of it comes from being out of the pressure of the center role and back into the role that suits him best - pure playmaking. He's bolstered by some seriously talented offensive players that fill up the top two lines. I like Stalberg on the top line with Kane and Toews, mostly because of his blinding speed, but for me at least it seems like when Stalberg has the puck he flies off the handle towards the net and shoots wild every time. He reminds me of the kid from the second Mighty Ducks movie who is blazing fast on skates but can't stop. All things considered though, the play of Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, and the rest of the Hawks offensive stars will certainly be enough to get them into the playoffs, most likely even at a high seed.

The problem is, however, that high powered offensively stacked teams often flame out in the playoffs, when the games slow down and physical defense can carry a team far. Just look at Boston last year. No one thought they were going anywhere, but with the outstanding play of goalie Tim Thomas, and the physical and gritty defense led by Zdeno Chara, it was the Bruins who took home the Cup last year. And even in the Hawks Cup season in 09-10, the Hawks were led by more than sufficient goaltending with Antti Niemi, and great defense with the likes of Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, a much-better Niklas Hjarmalsson, underrated but overpaid Brian Campbell, and of course Dustin Byfuglien. And really, the Hawks defense may be good enough right now to allow the offense to dominate for stretches in the regular season, but we found out last year that when you have to play the same team in a series, they can lock down on the stars of your team unless you make things happen on the defensive end. For another parallel, look at the Bulls last year against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yeah, the Bulls swept the Heat in the regular season on the way to a #1 seed. But when the Heat played them in a series, they could lock Derrick Rose down. And it worked.

Good to see the Hammer make some noise
That's why the defense and goaltending this year for the Hawks is such a concern. The Hawks allow nearly 3 goals per game, good for 18th in the NHL. The Hawks are the 4th-worst team in the NHL when they need their defense most, killing only 77% of their penalties. That's even more alarming considering they commit the 4th-least penalties per game in the league. But that's not the most alarming concern. They simply don't pass the eye test. You can watch any game with this team and tell that if nothing is done, the defense is going to kill the Hawks in the playoffs. A playoff series with St. Louis, Detroit, or Minnesota will be extremely difficult, for each one of those teams knows exactly how to be physical enough to mess with the Hawks and exploit their soft defense. I've covered the issues they have on defense and who is responsible for them, so I don't need to go into too much detail here, but I must say that Keith and Seabrook have played much better (let's just hope Seabrook is okay after the extremely dirty and vicious hit he took last night from Calgary's Rene Bourque), Nick Leddy is the real deal, Hjarmalsson struggles with contact issues and clearing the puck, and the four man rotation between John Scott, Sean O'Donnell, Steve Montador, and Sami Lepisto isn't working. I don't mind Montador and his offensive skill, but they simply don't have any consistency from half the defense that suits up every night. If the Hawks hope to make an extended run at the Cup, GM Stan Bowman is going to need to address this issue quickly.

The goaltending issue is a different altogether. Corey Crawford seems to have either lost his starting role or has been at least demoted to a platoon with backup Ray Emery, having not started since being pulled after giving up 3 quick goals in the December 5th game against Phoenix. Crawford has been admittedly bad, giving up soft goals on a consistent basis and having a deer in the headlights look that is so shocking, considering the skills he showed down the stretch last year and in the playoffs against Vancouver. I really think that its a combination of a huge loss in confidence, a poorly timed slump, and bad defense in front of him. Either way, for him to climb out of this slump its going to take some determined effort whenever Coach Q gives him another chance. Emery has looked good in replacing Crawford, putting up significantly better numbers with the same defense that Crawford dealt with. Coming into the season he was a bit of an unknown, and after some shaky early performances I for one was all over the guy. But right now, I have no complaints with the way he's playing.

Looks like Coach Q is going to ride the hot hand in net
Having said that, I wonder how this is going to play out. I don't think the Hawks envision Emery as the goalie of the future, especially given the contract that the Hawks gave Crawford last year (something they weren't willing to do with Niemi after he led them all the way to the Stanley Cup). So if that means that Crawford is the de facto goalie of the future, how does this shake out? It's hard to imagine Crawford catching some confidence and riding it to a redeeming second half of the season. Plus, Quenneville is notoriously hard on his goalies, including pulling Cristobal Huet to give Niemi the chance to win in the first place in the Cup year. Granted, Huet was much, much worse than Crawford, but it destroyed Huet's confidence and he hasn't played in the NHL since. Besides, Emery is playing well with the same defense that Crawford played poorly with, making the chances that Quenneville goes back to Crawford slimmer with each win. So Quenneville and the Hawks management are left with the conundrum of how to manage the situation. I guess as long as they keep winning, they hope that Crawford maintains some professionalism and is waiting to succeed once he is called on. And really, that's all they, and us fans, can do.

At the end of the day, if the Hawks play like they have the past few games consistently the rest of the year, they have a great chance of going far in the playoffs. But if they hit some bumps in the road, where we see the same falling apart nonsense on defense and the soft 5-hole goals by Crawford or Emery, Bowman will know for sure he has to make some moves. For once, the Hawks have some cap space to work with, and a rejuvenated farm system from which plenty of moves can be made to obtain reliable help on defense (with maybe an additional offensive minded center to help the second line of Sharp and Hossa). I trust that Bowman and the Hawks braintrust, who helped bring us the Cup in 2009-2010, know this and are already on it. If they make it right, the Hawks are poised to bring the Cup back to its rightful place in Chicago.