The losing streak is over but are the Chicago Blackhawks problems behind them?
Logic would say no. Not with a defense that still ranks near the bottom of the NHL. The good news is there are signs of progress starting with the last two games -- a close loss in Nashville and a resounding win in New York.
The formula against the New York Rangers in the 4-2 victory on Thursday worked to perfection. Any team in a losing skid needs early-game confidence and that usually means a lead. Just over a minute into the night the Hawks had one thanks to, of all things, a penalty shot. When Ranger Dan Girardi covered the puck with his glove in the New York crease, it was a break the Hawks needed.
Jonathan Toews’ ensuing goal meant more than just a single score. It was the momentum they needed. The Hawks rolled from there, allowing the Rangers few great chances just as they limited the Predators two nights earlier.
Now the bad news.
Why did it take this team so long to get out of their slump? For all practical purposes the losing streak should have ended out West in the second leg of their nine-game road trip. Colorado, San Jose and Phoenix were the black marks of the skid. When coaches Barry Trotz and Mike Babcock recently re-iterated the notion that all teams "go through this," they were only wrong about one thing: Not all teams lose nine in a row. In fact, no team, besides the Hawks, has lost that many consecutive games this season. Not the Columbus Blue Jackets or any other cellar dweller. That’s what makes the streak disturbing.
The Hawks came back from their first leg of the trip to Western Canada and were slow to react to the situation facing them. Desperate play and on-ice coaching changes didn't come until they had lost three more games to reach eight in a row. That's too long.
There is no better example of this notion than what the Hawks have done on the penalty kill over the last two games. They made simple changes, forcing opposing point men to pass the puck instead of shoot it. The Hawks didn’t need to block shots because they were already in shooting lanes, up at the blue-line, before defensemen could even wind up. Faced with that kind of pressure, they chose not to shoot, hence an incredibly low shot total (5) on seven power plays by the Rangers. Nashville and New York combined for zero goals in 10 power-play attempts.
If Joel Quenneville reacts quicker to their problems then maybe the San Jose Sharks don’t score three times on the power play. The Hawks were using their "old" system which had been failing all season. In fact, they actually didn't change systems as much as they admittedly tweaked it. That could have come much sooner.
Glass half-empty pessimists might say the Rangers' game wasn't enough. The Hawks scored just once in the more traditional, hard-working way. Nick Leddy's goal made it 2-0 came after a good shift in the offensive zone and a nice play by the revitalized Marian Hossa. It's not fair to take anything away from the two break-away goals and penalty shot score but it's also alright to think that won't happen every game, and even goalie Martin Biron admitted he needed to make a save or two. Toews went five hole while Patrick Sharp's goal went through Biron. Even Hossa's score was saveable.
In any case, even the players would admit there's nothing wrong with Hawks' fans saying "show me more." After all, they didn't score again after the opening 10 minutes and the power play is still goal-less for the road trip.
Still, the best notion of any of this is what the Hawks did on defense and in goal. They gave up a total of 43 shots over the last two games and that’s with an inordinate amount (10) of power plays between the Predators and Rangers. Just as impressive were the lack of plentiful scoring chances by the opposition in both games. The Hawks did not leave their goalies out to dry, especially in New York, and the result was giving up just two goals in Thursday's win. That's the first time in 10 games they've held their opponent under three.
Luckily, the Hawks built a cushion in the playoff race though they can probably say goodbye to a division title. Maybe Quenneville learned a lesson: He can't rely on his team's talent to win games and end losing streaks. This isn't 2009-2010 anymore. The Hawks can win a championship again. It's just not going to be as easy as their last one. If it was ever easy at all.