Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Power Play is Hawks' Only Weakness

The Hawks are 10-0-3. They're flying all over the ice, possessing the puck nearly at will and imposing their offensive skill on their opponents. Their depth has been prevalent, as all four lines are contributing on both ends of the ice. Their defense - just as deep - has limited turnovers and is spearheading superior puck possession like they did in the 2010 Stanley Cup season. The goaltending is vastly improved. Even the penalty kill, arguably the achilles heel of the Hawks last season, is one of the best in the league. Right now, the Hawks are rolling over some of the best opponents in the deep Western Conference, and they're doing it within the frenzied pace of a condensed season.

And yet, the lack of success on the power play has stymied this team all season. Sure, the stats will show you that the Hawks are merely just average in this category, sitting at 16th best in the league in converting 18% of their power plays. But watching this team the past few games gives you an idea of how they've been struggling, and even more than that, of just how good they should be on the power play.

The power play needs work, but this team is loaded
Case in point - look the 4 on 3 advantage the Hawks had in overtime last night after being given a power play by a bad high-sticking penalty drawn by Patrick Sharp. Joel Quenneville elected to go with a sort of super power play lineup, throwing out Patrick Kane up on the point with Marian Hossa, teamed up with Jonathan Toews and Sharp down below. The idea behind this four forward lineup was to take advantage of the Hawks superior skill (especially with those four players) and get the game winning goal quickly. Even with Toews winning faceoff after faceoff, and with Quenneville even calling a timeout halfway through the power play to keep his super power play team out there, the Hawks could not capitalize.

I figure that this is the one unit that will - or should - come around. It shouldn't be too concerning, considering the Hawks still sit better than half the teams in the league on the power play. The reason I do focus on this now, though, is because of the importance of manufacturing goals on the power play in the playoffs. Once the playoffs start, teams get tighter and scoring goals gets more difficult. In a 7 game series, a lightning fast team like the Hawks can get slowed down by playing the same team night in and night out as the opponent adjusts. Of course, the Hawks could always have a speed advantage, but the ability to create space and possess the puck is more difficult to do in a dominating fashion in the playoffs as physical play and team adjustments take over. That is why the Hawks need to maximize every potential offensive advantage they have. This means, more than anything, that they need to sort out their power play issues. To be sure, the Hawks could still march through the playoffs as is. But that isn't something you want to leave to chance.

That's all I want to focus on as far as negatives go. It says something about how special this season is if we have to nitpick on a merely average power play as things to improve on. Sure, I saw some weaknesses from Corey Crawford last night in the shootout with some soft goals, but for the entire season he's been infinitely better than last year and seems primed to help the Hawks this year. Even his backup, Ray Emery, had an outstanding game recently where he nearly threw back 50 saves. All in all, I feel confident saying that goaltending is no longer a weakness on this team.

I think a major reason for the early success of the Hawks is the success of all the main stars out of the gate. Other than Patrick Sharp, the "core" has been scoring at a high rate, especially Patrick Kane. I predicted before the season that Kane would be able to use his time spent playing in Switzerland to spring him forward into the NHL season, and that appears to be the case. He looks so much more comfortable out there this season instead of trying to play two ways as a center up the middle of the ice like he did for a large portion of last year. He's second in the NHL in points right now, and for good reason. He's scoring and facilitating offense at an amazing rate.

I'm just as impressed with the success of the 3rd and 4th lines, especially the two players centering those two lines. Andrew Shaw appears to fit in as a natural as the third line checking center, but he always brings an intensity and previously unexpected and untapped offensive potential as well. With Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg next to him, the third line has morphed from a checking line with scoring potential to a line that serves the equally effective purposes of offense and checking. Furthermore, Marcus Kruger on the fourth line is having a breakout season. We were told from Hawks brass previously how talented they thought he was, and we saw flashes of it. Yet, here Kruger is, emerging as a force defensively, both on the fourth line and on the penalty kill, and also beginning to show the offensive talent the Hawks have been talking about since he joined the club.

Keith is back to his old self
With the way this Hawks team has been playing, it would be easy to speak superlatives of the way the defense has been playing - except that they'd be true. Duncan Keith has had a resurgent year with the most noticeable change being in how fresh and fast he looks on the ice. Long known as the player who logs the most minutes on the team and some of the most in the league, Keith looks like the player that won the Norris trophy in 2010. It helps as well that he doesn't play as many minutes, which is due in large part to the success and depth of the rest of the defense. The reemergence of Niklas Hjarmalsson and the play of Nick Leddy has established the Hawks' defense as one of the best, and deepest, in the league. This defense, although full of legit two-way defenseman, knows and excels in its identity as puck possession defensemen. They're crucial to a great penalty kill as well as maintaining the offensive superiority they've maintained over other teams throughout the season. Quite simply put, without the success that unit has enjoyed, it's hard to imagine this Hawks team getting this deep into the season without a regulation loss.

And yet, that's where this team is. 10-0-3. Undefeated in regulation. A special season awaits the Hawks if they can keep up their torrid pace. They have to keep getting production from all four lines, the defense, and solid goaltending. They must try to keep up their amazing effectiveness on the penalty kill, and try to improve an average power play. This is a team that is built to win, and is equipped to handle the shortened season better than most other teams in the league. The core of this team has already brought one cup back home to Chicago. With the way they're playing right now, they'll have every chance in the world to bring home another.