Jonathan Toews (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Ever since the Chicago Blackhawks’ record point streak came to a crashing halt on March 8th in Denver at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, fans have been poking and prodding this team, looking for signs of weakness as the playoffs approach.
In recent weeks, there’s been a slew of criticism levied against several components of the club. Whether it’s questioning the play of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, or crying for goaltender Corey Crawford to be jettisoned in favor of Ray Emery in the Hawks’ net, it seems as though people are fixated on trying to see if the sky is falling rather than on the fact that the team still has the best record in hockey.
The one complaint that bears some legitimacy has been the team’s lackluster play in the third period of hockey games. Rather than being some unquantifiable critique like the arguments against Crawford and company, this point of concern has reared its ugly head on several occasions.
Four times in the team’s past seven games, the Blackhawks have gone into the third period with a lead, only to blow it. In three of those instances, the Hawks have lost, in regulation to the Ducks and Kings and in a shootout to the Blues on Thursday. Of those four third periods in question, the Hawks have given up at least two goals in all of them, with the Ducks tallying three thanks to an empty netter as the clock wound down in regulation.
The inability to play solid defense in the third period hasn’t been limited to this abbreviated time frame, either. On the season, the Blackhawks are allowing .89 goals per game in the third period, with a staggering 10 instances in which they have given up two or more goals in the final period. When you compare that to the combined five occurrences in the first and second period of games, the problem becomes even more serious.
There are several potential explanations for this pattern. The first and most obvious would be that opponents attack more aggressively when they are down by a goal or two in a hockey game, and so they will inevitably score more goals due to increased pressure.
Another possible reason for the Hawks’ third period struggles could be a fatigue issue. Their blown lead against the Nashville Predators last Monday came after they had played the archrival Red Wings up in Detroit, and in the March 20th tilt with Anaheim that saw the Hawks cough up three tallies in the third, it happened to be the concluding game of a tough four game road trip.
Whether fatigue or a product of a more aggressive style displayed by teams in that third period, the Blackhawks have got to recognize that they are fallible during the third period, and make whatever adjustments are necessary to prevent it from becoming their undoing. Whether it’s trimming the minutes of their top line forwards or of blue liners like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in the early stages of games or some other strategic decision, head coach Joel Quenneville has quite the tall order in front of him if he is to reverse this trend.