Blackhawks fall back into bad habits

CHICAGO -- After the Chicago Blackhawks' 5-4 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, they sounded a lot like they did following games in December and early January. In fact, their games the last two nights looked like them too.

“Certainly, the start, the two goals we gave up were preventable plays. Those are plays that you’ve got to be aware of and alert on,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “The other two were quick plays around our net that we’ve got to defend better.”

Now that’s a quote that could have come from much earlier in the season, when the Hawks were earning points, yet playing sloppy in their own zone. And we all know what happened next. When the offense dried up they were left to deal with their leaky defense and it led to a nine-game losing streak.

“Eight [non-shootout] goals [is] not good enough,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said of the last two games. “We’ve let in a couple on the penalty kill and a couple other easy goals, but we got three out of four points. That’s the most important thing.”

Now that the Hawks are in the playoffs, maybe earning points isn’t the most important thing. Shoring up their defense might be. No less than five goals over the last two nights were a direct result of men standing in front of the Hawks net. Most were uncovered, like Dany Heatley’s power-play goal on Sunday. Even when Dylan Olsen was on Kyle Brodziak, he still was able to turn and score the Wild’s fourth goal. But at least he was covered.

The night before it was screens and tip-ins that hurt the Hawks. All by players just standing in front of the Hawks’ net.

“We talked about that,” Hjalmarsson said. “Not trying to let those open-side net goals. Better that it happens now than in the playoffs.”

There’s another quote that could have come in December. Two games don’t call for panic and help is on the way in the form of Duncan Keith, who returns from his five-game suspension on Thursday, but this is the time of year where no bad habit can be allowed to linger.

So what will Quenneville’s message be?

“More of the same,” Patrick Sharp said. “It would be nice to tighten things up moving forward. Nothing new, just the same message.”

Sharp must mean the messages that started coming when the Hawks were losing games because of a shaky defense. They shored things up, turned the numbers around and became a playoff team because of it.

“The biggest thing is when we are giving them up,” Viktor Stalberg said. “We shouldn’t be in the position where we tie it up and then get scored on next shift. That’s something we have to clean up. It takes away the momentum.”

Those bad shifts after goals are a whole other story, but they won’t happen if the Hawks play defense the right way: pushing people out of the slot while treating the area in front of their goalies as sacred ground. Two nights in late March and April resembled a bunch in February.

Two nights is enough.