CHICAGO -- Maybe playing without suspended defenseman Duncan Keith was too much to overcome for the Chicago Blackhawks -- at least for the first game. Add the absences of Jonathan Toews and Marcus Kruger and maybe that’s the reason the Hawks fell so easily, 6-1, to the Nashville Predators on Sunday.
After the game, though, you wouldn’t find a Blackhawks player who’d use that as an excuse, as plausible as it might be.
“Obviously missing our top guys makes a difference but we’ve played well without Johnny,” goalie Corey Crawford said. “We just have to find a way to get some points.”
But the Hawks only played well without Toews after going through some growing pains. They were 1-3 in the first four games without their captain before turning things around, going 9-1-1 in their next 11.
“Those are good players, but you can’t sit here and make excuses after the game, especially after a performance like that,” Patrick Sharp said. “We have a good team that we put on the ice today. We just didn’t play like it.”
That might be true, but when you’re missing your top two centers and half of your top defensive duo it’s bound to have an effect -- at least until other players feel out some new roles.
Consider this: Brendan Morrison started the game filling in for Kruger. By the middle period, after getting beat on the first Nashville goal, he was replaced on the second line by Michael Frolik. Sean O'Donnell, taking Keith’s place in the lineup, was on the ice for two Nashville scores while the new pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook were on for two others. Sometimes, it takes a game or two to find a new level of play when key guys are missing.
“Where the game is evolving it’s easy to make changes when you don’t like what you see,” Joel Quenneville said. “Going into the game we looked at some options. You can’t be happy with the way we played.”
Those before-game options were simply wrong. Morrison should not be playing with skilled players nor should he be on the power play. Quenneville won’t make that mistake again. And he’ll probably be quicker to react in the faceoff circle, where the Hawks lost key draws on Sunday. Patrick Kane was 4 of 15 and eventually gave way to Jamal Mayers while Andrew Brunette waited on the bench to change for him after the draw. We know Keith will be out four more games. If Toews and Kruger remain out, Quenneville should be better equipped for Tuesday’s contest in New Jersey.
“That wasn’t our team,” Crawford said. “That wasn’t me. You have to forget about that one. Plain and simple.”
It wasn’t their team partly because those key players were missing. When Keith last left the lineup, the Hawks gave up a combined 11 goals in two of three games. Without Toews the Hawks struggled, until they found ways to get points and wins.
Of course, it doesn’t explain the other three losses to Nashville this season.
“They’re playing real good team defense all over the ice, good job in the neutral zone, tough for us to get in control in their zone,” Hjalmarsson said. “I just think they were better than us pretty much all over the ice today. Bottom line they just outworked us, and that showed pretty obviously out there today.”
Maybe it won’t next time the Hawks take on the Predators. A full lineup -- or a few more games to figure how to play without one -- will undoubtedly help.