Friday, April 20, 2012

Hawks on the Brink After Another Overtime Loss

If there's one thing that binds all Chicago sports fans together, it's optimism. Hope springs eternal is probably a more accurate way to describe it given the tumultuous history of Chicago sports. We will believe, with all evidence to the contrary, that something good will turn out for our teams. Nowhere is this more true than with the Blackhawks this year. We saw an 82 game season twist and turn more often than a rollercoaster at Six Flags. We saw a defense collapse but other times hold strong. We saw a goaltender ride the waves of his own confidence, with many highs and lows along the way. And we saw an offense, loaded with talent and designed to be the strength of the team, either fail to show up or act like a force to be reckoned with. Above all, what we saw made us believe that this Hawks team, starting right now, would put it all together and make some noise in the playoffs. Boy, were we blinded by our old friend, optimism.

This Hawks team has fallen into the same traps that beset them the entire season. Last night, the night before - the entire series against Phoenix - has not been any different. The Hawks, we thought, were better than the way they were playing. As we can see now, that is most definitely not the case. This is a deeply flawed Hawks team. They play bad defense, they have inconsistent goaltending, and their biggest stars have been up and down all year and seem to be hitting the low parts at the worst time.

Kane and the rest of the stars have been nonexistent
That has to be the most startling concern. The guys who are the most visible for the franchise - and get paid the most - have been for the most part invisible. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and even Viktor Stalberg have been unproductive to say the least, combining together to score 2 goals total thus far the entire series. It's unacceptable from the players who are the stars of your team, but even more than that, it is impossible for the Hawks to win without production from them. Think about it. The Hawks, a team you'd expect to come in and exert 100% effort to maximize their offensive firepower, have had to scramble at the end of each of the games to sneak into overtime. And the players making those plays haven't in the least been the stars, outside of Brent Seabrook, who we'll give a pass for his horrid Game 4 performance because of his excellence the rest of the series. No, it's been players like Michael Frolik, Brendan Morrison, and Bryan Bickell getting things done. You love to see the periphery players get things done, especially a guy like Frolik who has struggled so much this season, but you want to see those players coincide with success from the stars. If we had any kind of production from the stars, this series would be 3-1 Hawks right now.

Let that sink in. Each game in the series has gone to overtime thus far. That Hawks, a team with a supposed skill advantage on the offensive end, would seemingly be favored by such a scenario. Yet, the Hawks' failures in overtime has them now with their backs against the wall, poised to have an end forcefully put to their season Saturday in Phoenix. In any of the overtime periods, just ONE AT ALL, it would have been nice to seem some play from Kane, Sharp, or Toews. The NHL Playoffs are the biggest stage for these players, and the Hawks' biggest names are failing to step up on that stage. We, and the rest of the hockey world, like to anoint the stars on the Hawks as some of the best players in the game today. You'd think that at least one of these players would be able to turn the tides of a game. And had they done so, the Hawks at the very least would be sitting at 2-2 in the series, ready to head back to Phoenix to take a decided advantage.

Frolik has been huge the past two games
The worst part seems to be the mentality of the team. When the Hawks went down 2-0 last night with about 10 minutes left in the 3rd period, it was like a light came on or a switch got flipped. The aggressiveness of the Hawks returned, and they quickly scored with a beautiful shot by Brendan Morrison. Then with time running out, and about a minute left, the desperation and effort from the Hawks came through again, with Frolik notching the huge putback to force overtime. That sequence of events makes me think about two things. First, why can the team not play with this type of effort, edge, or desperation the entire game? For all too many portions of the game, the Hawks simply do not look like they're giving it all out there. I'm sure they're trying, but how many more times can we all see a lazy approach to a puck on the boards, only to see the Coyotes win a forecheck or backcheck battle. It's irritating beyond belief to watch, but even moreso when you know that hustle, the key to the forecheck (which in turn is vital to the Hawks' success), would make the Hawks relatively unstoppable. Simply put, if the Hawks played with the edge they had at the end of the 3rd period, and even the start of the game to a certain extent, there is no question in my mind that they would dominate the game.

The second thing that concerns me, specifically about the Frolik goal at the end of the game, is how the Hawks have now had three goals scored with almost no time left in the game to force overtime. All of these had come after the Hawks had pulled Corey Crawford, giving them a man advantage. Man advantage - isn't that the same concept as a power play!??! If the Hawks are so lethal at the end of games when they have an extra attacker on the ice, why is their power play so embarrassingly awful? I just don't understand it. A team as offensively talented and skilled as the Hawks should own a lethal power play. It should be an advantage of the team. Yet here we are again, watching the Hawks' power play falter as it has all season. Unreal.

Oduya, and much of the Hawks D, has been bad
That's not all at fault here. The defense played another shallow, unproductive game, for the most part. Before I get into that, though, I want to commend the play of Niklas Hjarmalsson, a player I love to hate on, for his game last night. He did everything that a Hawks defenseman is required to do, clearing the puck, maintaining possession, and he even saved a goal with a ridiculous play earlier in the game. The sad thing is, besides maybe Duncan Keith, we can't say the same of any other defenseman on the team from last night. Johnny Oduya, a guy the Hawks brought in at the trade deadline and who played wonderfully in the regular season, has had an awful series. Last night was no different, as he had a momentum shifting moment where not only did he turn the puck over in the Hawks' zone, he was lazy skating back to his responsibility on the ice, giving a wide open put back for Coyotes' captain Shane Doan. It was unfathomable to me that Oduya, a veteran who has been given a lot of responsibility in Chicago, would try to skate the puck out of the zone instead of clearing it to the man in front of him as quickly as possible. And then to skate lazily back, allowing a goal? It's a microcosm of the Hawks' defensive struggles all year.

That's not to say that the Hawks didn't try to come out and look different last night; they did. But once something like that happened, the wheels fell off and we saw the same old Hawks rear their ugly head. The entire third period read like a synopsis of the Hawks' defensive season: failure to clear the zone, slow to pucks on the boards, turnovers in the Hawks' defensive zone; and failure to clear traffic out in front of the net. Nick Leddy had the worst of these in overtime, where even though he was the last line of defense between the Coyotes and Crawford, he overextended himself going after a puck and led to the game winning breakaway. At a most basic level, it's going to take the offseason to fix these problems. The Hawks aren't going to go get rid of their defense and try to transition to a physical defensive team - it's just not possible. So they're going to have to get back to basics with the guys they have, and reemphasize the skills and requirements that can make this team successful. Be smart with the puck, always emphasize and look for puck possession, and do NOT allow traffic to be unabated in front of the net. Seems easy, but it's something we've completely lost sight of the entire year.

And finally, we're left with Crawford. At this point, I don't know what to think. Yes, Leddy was out of position in overtime and gave Phoenix a clear breakaway. But this is where a goalie comes in, being the guy to cover up those mistakes. That's what Boston has, that's what St. Louis has, that's even what a team like Phoenix has. Yet here was Crawford, giving up an unbelievably soft goal that won the game for Phoenix.

Crawford needs to be much more effective
That goal is the softest of all the soft goals. It didn't even look like the Phoenix player touched it after he initially tapped it. Crawford was his usual despondent self in the locker room afterwards, looking like he was one tough question away from crying. Frankly, I don't know what to think of him at this point. It's easy to look back and wonder why the Hawks couldn't cough up the extra couple hundred thousands of dollars to keep a great goaltender like Antti Niemi, but maybe they saw the true potential in Crawford, as we all have. But one thing the Hawks should've realized, or maybe they simply couldn't at the time, is that Crawford can be weak mentally. He's a confidence goalie; someone who can be the hottest goalie in the league when he's feeling right, or someone who loses his job frequently throughout a season when he's feeling low. I, for one, do not think the Hawks can win with someone as mentally fragile between the pipes. It remains to be seen if Crawford can iron out those issues, but in all reality, the Hawks have lost the last two games after two really soft goals. And that's just the thing. The Hawks players can support him all they want (and they have to or else he'll have NO confidence), saying all the right things about how well he's played in the series. But at the end of the day, no one remembers the great saves you made in the first or second periods. They remember the cheap ones that cost playoff games, regardless of the team's defensive struggles.

So here we stand, like last year, at the brink of elimination, needing to win out in a series to advance to the next round. And even if we somehow pull of the miracle and do storm back to win the series, what awaits the Hawks? A date with Nashville, a team cut from the same cloth as Phoenix only much better? That could be rough. The Hawks can only succeed if they buck the trend they've had all season and get everyone working together all at once. They need the stars to align their games, creating scoring chances and getting pucks on net. They need to the defense to work hard to meet their responsibilities. They need Crawford to step it up and act like an NHL goaltender for the entire game. And above all, they need to do this with the intensity, edge, and desperation befitting of a great NHL team. Can it happen? Unlikely. But as I said, we're Chicago fans. Hope springs eternal - at least for one more game.