The Chicago Blackhawks have had three opportunities this week to clinch a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they have been stymied in all three attempts. They did beat the Dallas Stars 4-2 on Tuesday, but a Phoenix Coyotes win over the Pittsburgh Penguins prevented them from getting in. A loss to the Boston Bruins Thursday, combined with a Coyotes win over the New Jersey Devils, also kept the Hawks from reaching the postseason officially. Finally, Friday presented a third opportunity, but a Hawks’ loss to the Ottawa Senators and the Dallas Stars’ 7-3 win over the Nashville Predators kept Chicago from clinching a berth in the playoffs.
Of course, a Hawks playoff berth is only a matter of when and not if at this point (unless they somehow manage to lose all of their remaining games in regulation, which seems highly unlikely), but the fact of the matter is that the Hawks are struggling in a bad way right now. Their defense has been coughing up goals at seemingly every opportunity, and even when their offense can generate a ton of push, like they did Friday against Ottawa, it isn’t enough as they have dropped two games in a row and three of their past four.
The question some Blackhawks fans are asking themselves right now is whether or not it is the right time to panic. The team is clearly struggling without Patrick Kane in the starting lineup, and with the winger guaranteed to miss the rest of the regular season because of his placement on Long Term Injured Reserve, there is a very real possibility that the Hawks could not only fail to catch the St. Louis Blues in the Central Division, but also fall behind the Colorado Avalanche as well to lose home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason.
Those two things alone would normally be enough to worry fans, but the problems are running much deeper than that. Players like Kris Versteeg and Brandon Bollig, who earlier this season were proving to be decent players, have gone into a huge funk lately, and despite various attempts by Joel Quenneville to spark their play, have both failed to deliver. Add to that the constant lineup shuffling that’s been required by injuries to not only Kane but also Bryan Bickell and Brandon Saad, and it’s easy to see why the Hawks are a team in flux at the moment.
So where should the “panic meter” be right now for the Hawks? On a scale of 1-10, the panic level should be at about a six right now. It would be higher, but there are still players who are producing at a high level for the Hawks. Corey Crawford has been largely great lately, keeping the Blackhawks in games and playing a very disciplined game in net. Jonathan Toews has cooled off a bit the past two games, but before that was scoring tons of goals and really turning up the tempo on offense. Patrick Sharp scored his 31st goal of the season for the Blackhawks, and has been one of the most aggressive guys on the ice. Finally, Marian Hossa is playing his patented brand of two-way hockey to perfection, and he has looked really good in recent weeks.
Despite those kinds of performances, the Hawks’ real weaknesses lately have been on defense and with their role players. The list of defensive breakdowns Friday night against the Senators is too long to recount in full, but on several of the goals against, including Clarke MacArthur’s third period tally, the Hawks were simply beaten by straight-ahead speed and aggressive play by an opponent. That doesn’t happen very often when you have guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on defense, but sure enough the Hawks were made to look like fools in trying to defend plays like that.
As for the role players, they are critical to the Hawks’ success because of the team’s puck possession strategy. If guys like Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger aren’t able to turn in quality possessions, then the rest of the team suffers because they aren’t going to rack up quality scoring chances like they do on a regular basis. That kind of failure in the bottom half of the lineup really hurts Chicago, and has been recently.
If the Blackhawks come out flat against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday, not only could it mean yet another failed opportunity to clinch a playoff berth, but it could serve as a clear message to the rest of the league that the Hawks’ house isn’t in order at the moment, and that kind of weakness is not a good thing to be displaying in the late stages of the season.