Struggling Blackhawks feeling the effects of change
The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks started the season 8-8-1 and have played more games than anyone else in the league. Now, 17 points in 17 games isn't disastrous, but it's hardly a pace that sits well in the Windy City. With all the changes they had to make this summer to become cap compliant, the Blackhawks knew they'd be a work in progress at this point. Lots of new faces and moving parts, plus the inevitable "Stanley Cup hangover" have led to inconsistencies all over the ice.
The core group of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are all in place and doing fine. The offense has produced 50 goals, the most in the NHL, yet a full third of that total has come via special teams. Veteran free agent goaltender Marty Turco has played well, with a save percentage just over 91 percent. That's where the biggest difference lies: Turco has had to be better than any of Chicago's netminders of a season ago. The Blackhawks are giving up around 34 shots on goal against per game, whereas en route to winning the Cup, they yielded the fewest shots-against at 25.1 per game.
So, while solid goaltending and stout special teams are elements of success, the Blackhawks are feeling the effects of change more in their own end than up the ice. In fact, opponents outshot them in six straight games to close out October -- an unthinkable notion last season when the Blackhawks dictated most games with unparalleled puck control. Right now, the forwards aren't nearly as diligent in their defensive effort as last season's group. The feeling in the locker room is that they "have to win more battles" and "play with a little more fire."
It may just be a matter of time, but this is a trend worth watching. There is no way the Blackhawks can defend their title if they regularly give up more shots on goal than they take, and continue to give up more goals than they generate while skating five-on-five. Where this shows up most is at crunch time. The Blackhawks have actually been in position to win several games, and have already given up four in which they entered the third period with the lead -- three in which they came away with no points at all -- including Sunday's 2-1 home-ice loss to the upstart Edmonton Oilers.
The Blackhawks also have a 1-3 mark in games where they've entered the third period tied. That adds up to six games of garnering zero points in situations where top teams typically thrive.
That is certainly a sticking point with coach Joel Quenneville. So, too, is the team's sluggish play at home. Last season, the Blackhawks mauled opponents to the tune of 29-8-4 in Chicago, obviously delighting the locals. Thus far, the champs are just 4-6-0 in United Center. Regardless, Coach Q is looking beyond the numbers, either home or road. He cut morning skate short in Atlanta on Saturday, saying only, "I want them ready to compete at night. What happens in the morning doesn't matter."
Still, pulling a team off the ice during a morning skate is a ploy used by coaches from time to time to get the group's attention. Surrendering 37 shots to the Thrashers one night and losing at home to the Oilers the next indicates that the roster overhaul and the Stanley Cup hangover are still muddling the coach's message.