Every 10 games I'll give you an assessment of the Blackhawks just as the coaches do internally. With 80 games in the books and the playoffs nearly upon us here are 10 things to know about the last 10 games as well as a peak into the future for the 44-26-10 Hawks:
For the second consecutive 10-game segment the Hawks played without Jonathan Toews, and just as they did in the first ten, they played well. In fact, they played even better. The Hawks were 5-4-1 in the first 10 without Toews but that jumped to 7-1-2 in the latter 10. Players who "stepped up" included Patrick Kane, Viktor Stalberg, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya to name a few. The portion of the schedule played without Toews should be looked back at as the defining positive moments of the Hawks regular season. Things could have fallen apart -- but they didn't.
There were mixed reviews playing Games 76-80 without Duncan Keith, after he was suspended for five due to his hit on Daniel Sedin of Vancouver. Seeing the play, and knowing Keith, he probably wanted to get a good shot in on Sedin after Sedin hit him high a few minutes earlier, but Keith certainly didn't mean for an injury to occur. He paid the price to the tune of $150,000 and so did the Hawks, losing a minutes-eater on the ice. Games 2 and 3 without him went fine but in Games 1, 4 and 5 the Hawks gave up a total of 14 goals. They survived the five games but he was missed.
Power play revival
Games 79 and 80 finally saw some returns on the power play. They don't keep those kinds of records but the Hawks must have set one, or come close, in registering zero shots on net over the course of nine power play attempts -- and just one shot in 11 tries -- in Games 75-78. But they broke out in the final two contests, scoring three times and recording 13 shots along the way. The difference wasn't just the desire to shoot, especially from the point, but the Hawks moved their feet and the puck to find some lanes. Good ‘saves' by Seabrook and Nick Leddy to keep the puck in the offensive zone didn't hurt either. You don't need 10 games to declare a power play back to form, it only takes a couple or three scores sometimes. We'll know more this weekend.
Without Toews the Hawks took a hit in the face-off circle. Over the last 10 games they won just 47.5 percent of their draws and Joel Quenneville was especially unhappy with face-offs on power plays. That's what helped tank their man advantages through the middle portion of the 10-game segment. Kane in particular struggled, at one point winning 12 and losing 34 over the course of Games 75-77. But he found his form in Game 80 winning 9 of 12 against Minnesota. Overall, the Hawks have dropped to 12th in the league but all that should change when Toews returns.
Not enough people are talking about the porous play in front of the Hawks goal over the weekend. Winning isn't everything when preparing for the playoffs and if the Hawks had come up just short in high scoring Games 79 and 80, more would be pointing fingers at the blue line. Why they refuse to push bodies out of the slot is inexplainable. No less than five of eight goals scored against Chicago in those two games came as a direct result of players standing in front of the Hawks goal untouched. Free to do what they please. And they did, providing screens, re-directs and tap-in goals. It was a recipe for disaster earlier in the season and returned over the weekend. It better not be back for good or the Hawks are in for a short postseason.
Sharp and Stalberg are showing so much chemistry they might be hard to break up. Marcus Kruger is doing the dirty work on that line while the two speedsters are setting themselves up for scoring chances nearly every shift. Stalberg is flying around defenders while Sharp is playing his sniper role to perfection. They've combined for 12 goals over the last ten-game segment. It means, on average, one of them is scoring at least one every night. The trio has played so well it brings to mind the question what do the Hawks do with the imminent return of Toews.
If Kruger's line sticks together then can Marian Hossa, Toews and Patrick Kane co-exist on the same unit? Conventional thinking would say no. Both Hossa and Kane play right wing and neither is too willing to move to the left side. Kane has tried it but he wasn't comfortable and the experiment didn't last long. Hossa has yet to try it in a Hawks uniform and on the surface it would seem to be an easier transition for him. His game is more rugged and less about playmaking. Kane is used to coming down the right side -- or middle -- of the ice with the puck and eyeing the scene in front of him. If they are committed It's worth a try to see if Hossa can handle it. Otherwise, as Joel Quenneville says, the Hawks have options -- especially if he decides to leave Kane at center even with the return of Toews.
With all the hoopla the offense receives and the deserved attention the addition of Johnny Oduya has garnered it might be lost in the shuffle but Seabrook is playing his best hockey of the season and maybe the best since they won the Cup. He's been that good. The scoresheet says so and so does the eye test. He was a minus player just twice in the last 10 games while compiling an overall plus-9 rating. And remember half of those games were played without his buddy Keith on the ice. Seabrook has been physical, smart with the puck and a presence in the offensive zone where he's added timely points. He's emerged as the Hawks No. 1 defenseman
Before Keith was suspended the blue-line was on a roll. In Games 70-75 the Hawks gave up a total of just eight goals and won every game. Keith and Seabrook looked great together again. Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya had near-instant chemistry and Niklas Hjalmarsson was able to ease back into the lineup on the third pair with Dylan Olsen. Things got strained without Keith but the Hawks survived. Now the question is which direction does Quenneville go in with Keith returning on Thursday? He and Seabrook will be back together but does Hjalmarsson slide all the way down to the third pair again? Or should he be teamed with the veteran Oduya on the second pair? That would also give each pair a skating and stay-at-home guy. Leddy and Olsen being the final duo. But sometimes "skating" d-men like to be paired with similar -- think Chris Campoli and Brian Campbell last season. It's a tough call but an important one for Quenneville.
Everyone has a thought on who is best suited for the Hawks. Working backwards the teams who have goalies that can steal a series should still be considered as dangerous as any. Pekka Rinne, of Nashville, is one of them. So is Kari Lehtonen of Dallas if they get in. Jonathan Quick has had a fantastic season but his playoff record is spotty. Mike Smith, in Phoenix, is good but their style contributes to their stingy goals against numbers as much as anything. Not only can Rinne steal a series but we all know Nashville's style can give the Hawks fits so it's probably the worst match-up. The Hawks and Detroit Red Wings mirror each other a little bit but for what it's worth the Hawks have proven to be better head-to-head this year. The Kings are tough up the middle and that could cause fits for the Hawks if they're not at full strength at center. The best match-up is the Coyotes or the San Jose Sharks. Phoenix can't match the Hawks fire power and Chicago has proven even if they get down to a stingy team like the Coyotes they can come back. San Jose isn't as fast or quick as the Hawks, and Antti Niemi has had an average year but he's proven he can steal a game or two in a series as well.