The Chicago Blackhawks have lost two games in a row to teams that are well out of playoff contention, but on Sunday night they’ll be in for a stern test as they take on the Winnipeg Jets in Manitoba.
The game comes at an opportune time for the Blackhawks, as they suddenly find themselves out of the division title race and firmly in the middle of the wild card hunt. They still have a sizable lead over the Calgary Flames, leading them by seven points, but they are now only four points ahead of the Jets, who are chasing them for the top wild card spot in the Western Conference.
That sudden fall down from near the top of the division (they now trail the Nashville Predators by eight points for the top spot in the Central) has come as a result of some porous defense and a complete lack of scoring punch. Over the Hawks’ last five games, they have scored a total of seven goals, and in their last two games alone they’ve allowed nine tallies in losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Even in their lone victory over the course of the last week, the Hawks’ defense still had its struggles. Corey Crawford was forced to stand on his head in the game as he stopped 43 shots against the Carolina Hurricanes, but he wasn’t able to replicate that feat against the Blue Jackets on Friday night as he was yanked after allowing four goals early on in the contest.
While the defense has struggled in those games, there is another potential thing that could be playing a factor in the team’s recent failures: a lack of effort. Andrew Shaw admitted to as much when talking to the media before Sunday’s game.
“I feel like we’ve taken some teams lightly as of late,” he said.
With only eight games remaining in the regular season, Shaw and the Blackhawks can’t afford to continue taking teams lightly. The next two games are going to be vitally important to their playoff seeding as they take on the Jets and the Los Angeles Kings, who are six points behind the Hawks but are trying to push their way back into the playoffs after a Saturday loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Sunday’s game will be a big-time test as the Hawks take on a Jets team that is slowly getting healthier as the playoffs near. They have won six of their last seven games, including wins over the St. Louis Blues and Montreal Canadiens. During that span their penalty killing unit has been tremendous, killing off 19 of the 20 power plays they’ve allowed in those contests, and they’ve been playing great defense overall, only allowing 12 goals over that time.
With that in mind, the Blackhawks need to establish their puck possession game early, and they have to try to limit Winnipeg’s scoring chances. Both of those things are easier said than done, but the Hawks have shown an ability to play up to their opponents when facing tough obstacles this season. With forwards like Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad playing some solid hockey lately, the team should be able to get at least some offensive push going, and they’ll need guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook to continue their solid play on the back end of things.