Hawks' trip emphasizes importance of effort

A roller coaster of a Circus Trip is behind the Chicago Blackhawks as they return home with a 3-3 mark. As the elephants leave the United Center and the pucks return, here’s what the Hawks (and the rest of us) learned -- some of it in their own words -- on the annual sojourn to western Canada and California.

“We learned that if we play good defense, it’s only going to help us.” -- Corey Crawford

“We know how good we can be if we go out there and work.”-Jonathan Toews

Did the Hawks actually need to learn these things? In reality they just needed a little reminder. They’re human. It happens.

After winning four straight -- all by three goals or more -- the Hawks were puffing their chests heading into Calgary and then Edmonton for Games 2 and 3 of the road trip. Beating arch-rival Vancouver, in Game 1, in the fashion that they did (5-1), may have been the highlight of the season to that point. But then came two low-lights, and the Hawks were all of a sudden reeling.

Is it possible the trip to Las Vegas in between Canada and California did them good? Considering how they played afterward, it would be hard to argue the opposite.

“We went into Vegas on the worst possible note you want to enter a couple, three days [off],” Joel Quenneville said Saturday night after the trip finale. “It turned out that maybe that was a productive time when the guys got together, rallied, got focused going into San Jose and it was a good finish to the trip.”

It probably wasn’t so much Vegas as much as getting embarrassed in Edmonton 9-2 that woke up the Hawks. Losing to Calgary the night before 5-2 was acceptable until it was combined with the following night embarrassment.

Quenneville was asked the most important question of this whole issue: Was losing 9-2 better, in hindsight, then a close defeat? Did it wake up a few players?

“You don’t want to go through that again but certainly you learn from that,” Quenneville responded. “There are certain ways to get guys attention, none better than that way, but I don’t recommend it.”

He chuckled at that last thought. Who would recommend such a butt-kicking?

In the short term, coming off the defeats in Canada and the trip to Las Vegas, the game against the San Jose Sharks on Thanksgiving eve was the most important contest of the season.

Did the Hawks need major personnel changes? Forget about depth on defense, was there enough front line talent to keep a good year going? And did lowly Calgary and Edmonton find some new holes?

Sharks coach Todd McLellan was hoping for as much before his team took on the Hawks. He made no bones about “looking at the tape” to find some weaknesses the Hawks’ Canadian opponents may have exposed.

What he saw on tape and what he saw on the ice Wednesday night were two totally different things. Only in hockey can teams look so good in defeat.

Maybe the best way to describe how the Hawks played against San Jose is to relate it to basketball: They played as if they were in a zone defense and as soon as the ball (or puck) moved towards the middle of the ice in their end, they collapsed on it.

The Sharks were always a split second away from a scoring chance but were thwarted by sticks being lifted, bodies being chipped and just an overall urgency to stop the offensive opportunity. Even they knew they won a game they were outplayed in, held 13 shots below their per game average. It was a near-defensive masterpiece by the Hawks, but they lost 1-0.

“What we learned about ourselves is we have a good team here. It’s a fight every night but we’re a confident team when we play a good team game. When we play the right way where everyone is on the same page. When we play that way it’s a lot easier to have success.” -- Duncan Keith

Some might interpret Keith’s words as cliché but juxtaposed against what we saw in San Jose, he couldn’t be more correct. Defensive hockey -- and hockey in general -- is about support. Players are going to get beat but when support is there the scoring chances become minimized. The Hawks learned that the hard way in Calgary and Edmonton, but they learned it quickly, and benefitted for the rest of the trip.

“We know that teams will raise their games against us and we have to be ready for that. There won’t be any easy ones for us out there.” -- Toews

“We learned every team is good no matter what position you are in the standings. The parity in this league is unbelievable. I think it showed in western Canada. Edmonton is not the team they were last year or the year before.” -- Keith

Again, did the Hawks need to learn this or just remember it? It’s splitting hairs but short memories sometimes aren’t a good thing. Edmonton took the Hawks down twice last season at the United Center and Calgary whipped up on them in Canada a year ago, but maybe those memories weren’t as fresh as the November wins the Hawks earned over those teams in Chicago this season. Even so, taking any opponent lightly is a mistake in any professional sport.

There is good and bad in the above statements by the players. In the short term it probably doesn’t sit well with fans, let alone Joel Quenneville, that the Hawks aren’t prepared for some of the less sexy teams in the league. But in the long run, the effort and subsequent results on the second half of the trip in California prove this is a good team and can play dominant hockey when they put their minds to it.

“[We] should never give up. We’re never out of games. Say it so many times. [Our] offense is so good, we just can’t give up in games.” -- Crawford

Obviously, Crawford is talking about the 6-5 win in Anaheim but maybe he’s referring to Edmonton as well. He’s right, the Hawks have an explosive offense and once in a while it should carry the day. Maybe if they had gotten their act together in Edmonton they would have made a game of it even after getting down 5-1 after the first period.

They didn’t do it there but they did in Anaheim, reminding the hockey world they have firepower few teams possess. But the lesson learned against the Ducks was for the fans and not the players.

“We knew if we stuck with it we’d be rewarded,” Viktor Stalberg said at the time.

No one in the immediate-response world of twitter wanted to hear it, but the Hawks were dominating the Ducks after getting down 2-0, especially in the second period. They outshot Anaheim 17-5 but lost the middle 20 minutes one goal to none. Down 4-2 after two, it seemed only the Hawks were confident of a comeback.

“We talked going into the third period it was going to feel good battling back and clawing to get back in the game,” Patrick Sharp said. “Good teams don’t change the way they play whether it's 4-0, for or against, and we did that.”

The attack they generated in the third was devastating and set the tone for the final game: The Hawks were confident again. Quenneville went right back to Crawford and the urgency to even up the trip at .500 was apparent from puck-drop. The Hawks played a solid road game after a 13-day journey. They never trailed, didn’t take too many chances and relied on Crawford for some timely stops in the 2-1 win over the Kings.

In doing so, they return to Chicago with their pride (somewhat) intact and their record, 14-7-3, still gaudy. As long as the lessons were really learned and the mistakes aren’t repeated -- at least not too often -- the Hawks will be OK.