Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hawks on the Right Roll at the Right Time

Rewind back a month. The Hawks, reeling from a nasty losing streak, face the rest of the season from the ropes. A team loaded with talent has lost its way, teams are picking apart their special teams seemingly at will, and there are even rumors creeping in of Joel Quenneville losing his job. The special core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and the rest appear to bounce between pressing too hard or not trying hard at all. The Hawks faceda steep goaltending competition, and GM Stan Bowman appears to have to sacrifice it all to make much needed changes. Above all, any hopes for the season appeared to be lost.

Now come back to the present. In the last month, the Hawks have righted the ship, cementing themselves in the 6th slot in the playoffs with the potential to climb above division mates Detroit and Nashville. Most of the core has found their games, Stan Bowman's sole acquisition of Johnny Oduya looks great, and Quenneville's reputation as a great coach has been somewhat restored. The Blackhawks look poised to be able to make a decent run in the playoffs, or at the very least make it much more competitive than was originally thought only a month ago. And to think, they've done all of this without their captain, Toews.

Puck possession, playmaking, skill. Kane has it all.
Where to begin? I think quite simply and bluntly, the Hawks are playing their game again. One of the reasons the Hawks were so successful in the cup year was due to a dominant puck possession game. The Hawks were great at forechecking and maintaining possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Forechecking is such an underrated skill. If your team forechecks well, it magnifies the effectiveness of the offense merely because the offense has the puck more. And by effect, it takes a ton of pressure off the backs of the defensemen and goaltender. So when you add a ton of talent to that mix, and design your defense to fit that model, you have the makings of a special team. In 2009-10, the Hawks had the perfect design. They were able to fit this model with several elite playmakers, like Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg, and even Andrew Ladd. When you see that they complemented this with defensemen like Keith, Brian Campbell, and Niklas Hjarmalsson (this is the strength of his game), it really help facilitates offense. At the same time, the Hawks had a more competent goalie in Antti Niemi, which allowed the Hawks to cheat a little on offense as well.

When you fast forward to this year, the Hawks really struggled with this. For some reason, the team wasn't forechecking nearly as well, and it has a lot to do with the lack of physical play. Now, we know that the Hawks have certain enforcers on the team like Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo (before he got hurt), but that's different than playing smart and physical. In 09-10, you had a guy like Dustin Byfuglien, along with players like Ladd and Ben Eager, who were able to play physical in a checking context. This year, the Hawks certainly struggled in that department, and the stars weren't able to pick up the slack. When there was no offensive chances being created, it slotted all the pressure against a defense not designed to handle it. It also led to Corey Crawford crumbling under the same pressure. And man, was it hard to watch.

But in the last month, the Hawks have rebounded. They're playing with much more energy in their step. It makes you wonder if the Hawks maybe were slacking early in the season. But the fact remains that this past month, as the Hawks effort has been at its highest, you see shades of the Hawks from the cup year. They simply pass the "eye test."

Hossa's two way play is exemplary
The fact that they've done this without Jonathan Toews blows my mind. I really commend Kane for stepping into a leadership role, doing so much in the same way as Toews does. His by example style is infectious to the rest of the team. It's crazy to think that one of the team's better leaders at this juncture is Patrick Kane, but his style of up-tempo, dive-into-the-zone playmaking has been amazing. I also look to Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, who have both stepped up their games lately. I wonder if Sharp's recent spike in production is more a result of finally being healthy more than it is an uptick in effort. It's especially great to see Hossa playing up to his two-way player reputation so strongly. Hossa plays both sides of the puck so well; it's one of the reasons people get so down on him when he doesn't play well. When Toews went down, Hossa showed why he got such a huge contract. He intercepts passes in the neutral zone, he controls the puck and creates chances in the offensive zone, and he is one of the few Hawks who actually blocks shots defensively. Great all around player. 

The scrappy Hawks don't back down
It's hard not to celebrate some of the things we complained about as well only a month ago. I know I was one to rag on Stan Bowman, but his sole acquisition of Johnny Oduya has played out great. Oduya is a key contributor, and has helped to solidify a gaping hole on special teams. And much credit for the Hawks resurgence must go to Quenneville, who had struggled earlier this season to get the Hawks to respond to really anything. He recognized that the Hawks need to get back to their strengths, and that just because they aren't the biggest team doesn't mean they couldn't play aggressive and physical. If the Hawks would just start responding with more aggressive and physical play, the tactics that other teams used to disrupt them wouldn't be nearly as effective. Last night's game with Vancouver was a perfect example of this. The Canucks have a much bigger and legitimately physical team, dominating the Hawks in hits. But no one watching that game would think that the Canucks' physicality changed the way the Hawks played. When Quenneville was smart enough to get guys like Andrew Shaw and Dave Bolland to play scrappy hockey, that mentality really started to pay off. You could also see another Quenneville staple at play last night, and that was sticking Shaw in front of the net. He occupies Byfuglien's old spot there, and really makes the most of it, netting the game winner from there last night. 

Hard not to love Shaw and the Hawks right now
The Hawks are still bad in some defensive categories, but they're drastically improving already. You could see it already in goals against, of which they used to occupy the one of the lower 5 spots in the rankings. Now, they sit in 21st, a far cry from only a month ago. It's a trend that you also see at the power play, where they've moved up to 22nd. But really, stats only tell a part of the tale. Watch any game, especially a home game, and you see the Hawks feeding off the energy and looking like a team from a couple years ago.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Corey Crawford here. Since he came in a few games ago as a substitute for Ray Emery, he's been lights out. He hasn't looked fazed whatsoever, even against top teams like St. Louis and Vancouver. It makes me wonder if Crawford can start to excel going forward like he did around this same time last year. One thing is for sure, if Crawford continues to play like he did especially in the third period last night, the Hawks will be a tough team to beat. If somehow the Hawks got the Corey Crawford going forward that we had last year, it would also go far to further along the confidence of the team.

So once again, we hop on the Blackhawks roller coaster that this season has been. Could this be the highest part of the season? Well, I certainly hope not and honestly don't think so. I think they can ride this wave into the playoffs and perhaps steal a round there. If they can do that, you have a team with this kind of talent getting that kind of momentum and all bets are off. Hopefully then they can get Toews back (even though my money is on him missing the season). And really, a lot of it depends on if the Hawks can continue to stay disciplined enough to stay within the framework that maximizes the talent they have on the roster the best. Perhaps that is the best lesson from this season. We spent most of this season worrying about what the Hawks were missing. In reality, we needed to focus on a strategy to get the most out of what we already have. With Coach Q, Kane, Hossa, and the rest getting that right now, there's no telling how long we can continue to ride the coaster.