For the 10th series in a row, the Chicago Blackhawks dropped their road opener on Saturday night, falling by a score of 4-3 to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.
The final score may have only been decided by one goal, but the reality is that the Blackhawks were nowhere close to winning the game throughout the third period. Drew Doughty’s insurance goal was merely icing on the cake, and the Hawks’ offense struggled to generate scoring opportunities during the final stanza. In total, they did get eight shots on goal, but only after a late flurry of chances with Corey Crawford pulled from the net.
After the disastrous conclusion to Game 2, in which the Blackhawks surrendered five third period goals to lose 6-2, there are some Blackhawks fans who are growing concerned about the team. Could they be out of gas? Could the Kings be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back? How concerned should fans be?
In order to answer that question, we are going to take a look at the Madhouse Enforcer Blackhawks Panic-Meter. On a scale of 1-10, we’ll let you know how concerned you should be about the Hawks’ chances in the series, and we’ll prescribe some remedies for each malady that has befallen the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Blackhawks’ offense has looked pretty bad over the last four periods of play, with only the top line of Marian Hossa, Bryan Bickell, and Jonathan Toews really providing any real punch. Toews picked up two goals for the Blackhawks in the first period of Saturday’s game, and even though he didn’t score any more, that line continued to generate chances.
On the other hand, the Blackhawks’ second line has continued to struggle. Patrick Kane has been invisible during this series, and even though Patrick Sharp scored a goal in Game 3 on a late deflection, he has been largely ineffective too. Skating with Michal Handzus isn’t helping that group, and both players are in need of a fresh infusion of talent up the middle of the line.
That’s where a player like Ben Smith or Andrew Shaw would come in handy. Not only can those guys handle the puck themselves, but they also are fast enough that it gives guys like Sharp and Kane options when they are entering the zone. Whether they dump the puck in or carry it in, there’s a far better chance of establishing good possession if one of those guys is at center.
The Blackhawks’ defense has been making a slew of mistakes in recent games, whether it’s dumb penalties (Michal Rozsival’s high stick to Kyle Clifford’s face in Game 3) or bad defensive positioning (Johnny Oduya and Handzus staring at a wide open Jeff Carter in front of the net in that same game), and it’s cost them dearly in two consecutive losses.
Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, there isn’t a lot that they can do to rectify the problem other than simply execute better. Rozsival can be swapped out for Sheldon Brookbank, but that’s only a minor upgrade at best. Shuffling up the defensive pairings generally doesn’t work either, with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook seemingly ineffective when they aren’t on the ice together.
Perhaps the best move for Joel Quenneville defensively would be to lessen the workload on Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Those two get the bulk of the tough defensive assignments for the Hawks despite their usual designation as the “second pairing,” so giving more shifts against tougher competition to Keith and Seabrook could be a way of lessening the pressure on the pair of Swedes, and perhaps make them more effective as the series wears on.
Corey Crawford is a player that can bounce back from adverse circumstances, but over the last few games, it’s seemed like he’s been just a touch off.
Granted, constant defensive breakdowns and numerous instances of the goaltender being screened by his own players (Toews set a perfect screen on Crawford when Slava Voynov blasted a power play goal by him on Saturday night) are not helping, but Crawford’s positioning in the crease has been suspect over the last two games, and he certainly has not been playing at the level he was against the Minnesota Wild.
That being said, Crawford still has a much longer track record of bouncing back from tough games than he has of retreating into his shell when the pressure is amped up, so writing him off at this point would be silly.
Panic Meter: 5/10
It’s admittedly a cop-out to pretty much set the panic meter right in the middle, but that’s where the Blackhawks realistically are right now. They are a team that has all the talent necessary to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup, but the Kings are brimming with confidence and playing some of their best hockey of the year at the moment.
Their relentless dedication to their game plan and their improved offensive punch have the Blackhawks reeling, and although it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone to see the Blackhawks bounce back and win the series, fans certainly aren’t feeling the same kind of hubris that they were when the series began.