The Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the best stories in sports during the last two seasons. From perennial bottom feeder to a Western Conference championship appearance last year. Patience and high draft picks, including Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, have not only sky rocketed the Hawks to the top of the standings but have also filled the seats at the United Center. It has been an almost meteoric rise for one of the NHL's most storied clubs. The Blackhawks have not just been good this year, at times they have looked almost invincible, dominating teams with speed, puck possession, and a transition game that looks like blitzkrieg on ice.
However, Chicago has floundered since the Olympics going an unimpressive 5-6-2. That does not seem like a record fit for a Stanley Cup contender, and with only eight games left for the Hawks it is a bad time to go on a slump. So what is wrong with this young, highly skilled, Cup contender?
Could it be an Olympic hangover? This could be accurate as many players who played in the Olympics have struggled including top net-minders Ryan Miller and Roberto Luongo. The San Jose Sharks led the NHL in Olympians with seven, and despite winning four straight games, they lost six in a row before that, bringing their post Olympic record to 7-6-1. Also not a great record. The Blackhawks were tied for second with six Olympians and all six players were in the medal rounds of the hockey tournament. Perhaps it is nothing more than coincidence, after all, not every Olympic hockey player has struggled since the tournament. However, it seems that the teams with more players in Vancouver for those long two and a half weeks have had a more difficult time. It could not have been easy going from the intense, emotionally draining Olympics where every game is like a game seven, to the grind of regular season NHL hockey.
Injuries have also taken their toll on the Hawks. Losing Brian Campbell for what is likely the rest of the season, as well as Kim Johnsson who still has no time table for a return as he battles a concussion. The Hawks were also without Brent Seabrook for a few games. All these players are top four defensemen.
The Blackhawks play a very similar style of game as their divisional rivals in Detroit. This is a system built on puck possession and quick transition and it all starts with the defense. It is no fluke that Detroit went through an eerily similar slump at the beginning of the season when they were dealing with injuries to the back end. Now that Detroit is healthy they are flying up the standings. Not that anyone should be surprised.
The hard truth is that the Hawks are finding it tough to replace not only the skill and speed of Campbell, but also the fact that he plays between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Dustin Byfuglien, the defenseman turned forward turned stop gap defenseman, has been the silver lining to all this. He has been terrific and is improving every game. However it may not be enough. Keep in mind that Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson are the only top four defensemen with more than one year of playoff experience and it is easy to see why panic could set in.
The post-Olympic Blackhawks have become a much easier team to play against than we are used to seeing. The disciplined defensive system has faded into a free flowing mess where forwards are getting caught up ice and very few Hawks seem willing to sacrifice their bodies. As good as big Byfuglien has been on defense he has been missed in front of the net and in the corners on the forecheck. This needs to be addressed and can easily be solved by a more collective effort.
With the huge losses on the point Chicago may be forced to change their system. Instead of the long passes and fancy passing the Blackhawks may want to simplify things. Short passes, protecting the puck, winning puck battles, hitting, and hard work for an entire 60 minutes. It might also be a good idea to get back to the line combinations that gave the Hawks success earlier in the year.
As much as I like Dave Bolland, he has been struggling. It may be because of the major back surgery that kept him out of the lineup for most of the season, and he is not yet 100%. Or it could be a complete lack of confidence. Either way, he has not been able to find any chemistry with Marian Hossa or Patrick Sharp. The second line of Sharp, Hossa, and Versteeg was great at the beginning of the year and should be an option going forward. However I am not a coach and thinking up NHL line combinations is very easy from an arm chair. Coach Joel Quenneville and hockey guru Scotty Bowman have all brains and experience necessary to solve these problems.
There is a saying in Chicago which goes something like, "the most popular person in Chicago is whoever is the back-up quarterback for the Bears." This can now be applied to the Hawks goaltending situation and Antti Niemi. I think it is fair to say that Niemi has taken over the starting job, and not just because of the catastrophic play of supposed #1 Crisobal Huet. Antti Niemi has emerged as a legitimate NHL goaltender and has played above expectation. He has the potential to be a star in the NHL, I just doubt the Hawks expected him to be their starting net-minder in the playoffs this year. Both Huet and Niemi have proven they can play, it is now a matter of getting them hot at the right time. At least one of them.
Lastly, let's understand that slumps happen in professional sports, they always have and they always will. I am sure Blackhawk nation is pushing the panic button as we speak, because after all, this is a franchise that has been without a Stanley Cup since 1961. That is a long time and this 2010 Blackhawks team has arguably the best shot at breaking the Cup drought in Chicago.
So before people are eager to write off the Blackhawks, keep in mind that the 2007-2008 Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings went a horrible 1-8-2 in February and things worked out just fine. The 2008-2009 Pittsburgh Penguins looked a sure bet to miss the playoffs entirely until Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therien as coach on February 15th, and the Penguins went on a tear and eventually won the Stanley Cup. Even the best teams do not dominate entire seasons, especially in the salary cap era, and the Chicago Blackhawks are no different.
Will the Blackhawks end Chicago's 48 year drought and hoist the Stanley Cup this year? Who knows, but do not count them out because of a few off weeks.
Like always thanks for reading, and have a happy stretch drive and playoffs.