Are Blackhawks' Defensive Struggles a Cause for Concern?

The Hawks gave up six goals in two midweek losses

 After struggling through the early stages of 2014, the Chicago Blackhawks finally seemed to turn a corner last weekend when they took down the Anaheim Ducks and Boston Bruins in two impressive victories at the United Center.

During back-to-back tilts against the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota Wild, however, it appeared that the team took a step back in the wrong direction. They dropped a shootout decision to the Wings after leading the contest 2-0 in the early stages, and then they came out flatter than Crystal Pepsi in a 2-1 loss at the Xcel Energy Center.

Normally, back-to-back one goal losses (and especially when one of them resulted in a point for the Blackhawks) aren’t something to get overly concerned about in an 82-game season, but when a team makes as many simple defensive mistakes and bad decisions as Chicago did in the two losses, then there is a legitimate cause for concern.

Consider the comedy of errors that accompanied the Hawks’ loss to the Wings. On Detroit’s second goal, Johnny Oduya came out from his defensive position to go after Wings forward Justin Abdelkader. The move was an ill-advised one, as it left Niklas Hjalmarsson to have to cover two different Wings, and he chose wrong as Patrick Eaves got the puck and fired a gorgeous shot past Corey Crawford to tie the game at 2-2.

Later in the game, Brent Seabrook took his turn at the failure buffet. While chasing down a puck in the defensive zone after the Wings dumped in a pass to complete a line change, Seabrook tried to get cute with the puck and skate it around the back of the zone instead of cycling it around to Duncan Keith on the other side of the net. That indecision ended up costing the Hawks, as Abdelkader was able to pry the puck away from Seabrook. When Keith tried to come behind the net to help, it left two Wings open as the Hawks were slow to get back on the forecheck, and the ensuing goal put the Hawks in a 4-3 hole.

Things didn’t improve much against the Wild the following night, and it wasn’t just the blue liners who were struggling. When Kris Versteeg went into behind the Wild net to battle for a loose puck, Michal Handzus and Bryan Bickell ended up getting caught flat-footed as the puck went the other way. After Antti Raanta conceded a rebound on a tough save, Jason Pominville came in as the trailer and flipped the puck into the net to give Minnesota an early 1-0 lead.

That lead was extended on another defensive miscue, once again on the rush. With Keith on the shelf due to illness, the Blackhawks’ defensive pairings were all scrambled up, and Oduya ended up on a pairing with Michal Rozsival. As Justin Fontaine came up the ice for Minnesota, Rozsival cut over from his side of the ice to block his path to the net. This move left Matt Cooke uncovered on the rush, and Fontaine’s pass didn’t miss his stick blade as Cooke settled the puck down and buried a shot past Raanta to make it 2-0.

Whether in transition like on the Cooke and Pominville goals, or in situations of leaving defensive assignments like on the Eaves goal, the Blackhawks have been showing some poor discipline in that area of the game as of late. Joel Quenneville may be focusing his attention on shuffling up offensive lines to generate more scoring, but these mental breakdowns should be of more concern. The Hawks’ whole game is predicated on limiting scoring opportunities with smart defense, and they simply have not been doing that in their past two games.

If they don’t get their act together in short order, then they could be facing a steep uphill battle as they take on some of the best home teams in the league on their pre-Olympic odyssey.

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