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Are The Blackhawks Back?

Blackhawks and Wild were center stage last night. National TV, two of the top teams in the West, and the only hockey game on the schedule for the night. No matter who you cheer for, that game delivered for the NHL. It was very exciting, plenty of skill on display, and a fantastic finish. Yes, the Blackhawks have some issues(more on this later), the Wild were on the 2nd half of a back-to-back after a long road trip and opted to play Dubnyk the night before instead of saving him for Chicago. And in the grand scheme of the race for the division, picking up one point on Minnesota won’t really matter. The Wild are likely winning the Central and the Blackhawks are finishing second. With all that said…I fucking LOVE winning, man. You know what I’m saying? It’s like better than losing!

That was a good road win yesterday and the Blackhawks are starting to round into form and they’re being driven by Jonathan Toews finding his game. As Panarin and Hossa have slowed a bit over the last month, Toews has been a bull at both ends. He always comes to play defensively, and now he’s in attack mode offensively as well. Toews has 11 points in his last 7 games and put home the game winner on the PP last night.

Schmaltz and Panik have been Toews’s wings for the past three games and it looks like they are starting to feel comfortable together. All three scored, but more importantly they were good with and without the puck. They controlled it along the wall and down low and were able to get inside of the Wild’s defense and bury Grade A chances when they generated them. The Wild were able to play the match up game as the home team, and they chased them quite a bit. They chose to throw Koivu against the Kane line and that really freed Toews to go at the Wild. That’s the type of “pick you poison” scenario the Hawks need in order to make a deep run in the playoffs. They’ve always been able to make teams uncomfortable because they got offense from up and down the lineup and had dangerous players all over the their top 6. Last night was a prime example of the Blackhawks being able to finish with high skill around the net where their opponent couldn’t.

The Hawks had a good game, and you some would argue that they win in regulation if it wasn’t for the refs.

How that was reviewed and still deemed onside or inconclusive is beyond me. There was also BLATANT intereference by Eric Staal on Hjalmarsson that led directly to the game tying goal by Haula. Now, I know that pick play isn’t called very often, but Staal needs to be less obvious about it. He looked right at Hjalmarsson and raised his hands as they collided. I’m not going to make that argument that the refs were to blame though, because the Wild certainly had plenty of other chances to bury goals and Crawford came up huge(aside from the Spurgeon goal. That’s one that Crawford needs to make).

I think last night was a pretty clear example of why the Wild are ahead of the Blackhawks in the standings. They quite simply play a better team game. That’s not to say they are a more talented team, but they play better hockey as a 5 man unit. They were impressive for long stretches last night. The Wild have balance and speed all throughout their lineup and they use it effectively. They rarely get caught out of position on the forecheck, they support the puck well, and they force teams to give the puck back to them. Minnesota, under Boudreau, are a very hard team to play against. The collapse well in their own zone and to take away prime scoring chances, and they simply don’t allow teams to get going in transition because their guys track back so well.

Quite frankly, that’s something the Blackhawks need work on this year. It’s somewhat expected. Last night the Blackhawks had 4 rookie forwards in the lineup and at various times this year they’ve dressed as many as 6 rookies. And that’s not counting Rasmussen and Panik who also don’t have a ton of NHL experience. There’s going to be a learning curve for a guys like that and it’s going to permeate the rest of the lineup.

If you remember back to the 2013 Blackhawks, that team won in such dominant fashion because they could do everything. That team was fast, and played a GREAT team game. They were like Ice Man in Top Gun. They never got drawn out of position on the forecheck, they created turnovers by forewards supporting the D positionally so the D could be extra aggressive when taking away space at the blue lines. Then when the Hawks got the puck back quickly, they turned it around put it in the back of your net because not only were they the best defensive team in the game they also had LOADS of offensive talent.

No, the Blackhawks from a pure talent standpoint, aren’t as good as they were back in 2013. That doesn’t mean they don’t have enough talent to get it done in the playoffs. They just need to tighten up some of these issues without the puck, because as we saw last night, the young guys know what to do when they have it. Most young NHL players are pretty comfortable when in possession with the puck because that’s usually what got them to the NHL in the first place. It’s all the little habits like taking proper angles, knowing when or when not to finish a check, proper spacing when you’re F2 or F3 on the forecheck, and creating good outlets/support for your D when you’re in your own zone. The Blackhawks are getting better positionally as the year goes on as expected. If they can round off some of these bad habits they do have enough talent because the Hawks top guys as still so good.

I am so tired of the narrative that Toews and Seabrook have fallen off of a cliff. Seabrook wouldn’t make Team Canada anymore, but he’s still a top 4 dman on every team in the league. He plays in all situations and is an effective player. It takes 5 guys doing the right thing. Seabrook being bad is a lazy narrative because people like things simple. When in reality, the reason a goal was scored probably happened a 100 ft from where the play started. He needs better support from his forwards just like every other guy in the league.

We saw a tick in the right direction last night against a high quality opponent. Adding a little help at the deadline and the forwards will a better attention to detail defensively will have the Hawks cooking when the weather turns because from a pure talent stand point the Hawks are still an elite team. Dynasty Reign.