The Chicago Blackhawks are, barring unforeseen cataclysms, poised to enter the post season in consecutive years for the first time since 1997. From 1998 through 2008, missing the playoffs was the norm, save for a quick exit in 2002. While the euphoria of last year’s resurgence may have carried the Hawks along with their talent, expectations have now been ramped up to the maximum. But are the Blackhawks ready for success, or is too early to think Stanley’s silver is within their reach?
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp; or what’s a heaven for?” wrote Robert Browning. Hockey experts and enthusiasts may not quote poetry as often as they quote statistics, and those who cite facts and figures will insist the Blackhawks are a team with more questions than answers.
Their 4-4-2 record in their last ten contests, however, reassures no one.
With ten games to go after their home ice rematch with the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday, March 23rd, the Hawks are less than the picture of health. Three of their top defensemen have been lost to them in little more than a week. Even worse, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Kim Johnsson are out just when the Blackhawks need to be tightening up evident, and persistent, flaws in their defensive game.
As the mainstream media fulminated, some of the prominent players in the Hawkey blogosphere convened to commiserate over recent events, particularly the Hawks’ propensity to lose after giving up leads with as little as seconds to go.
Sam Fels, whose Second City Hockey website and newsletter ‘The Committed Indian’ have earned him pedigree among Hawkophiles, offered his view when presented with the question, “Does Saturday’s 3rd period collapse portend to a defensive frailty, or was it more the result of having 3 d-men on the shelf?”
“In my mind, it’s the latter,” Fels replied. “Though none of the goals can be specifically attributed to one of the fill-in d-men, having Johnsson, Seabrook, and Campbell in the lineup would have resulted in more and better possession for the Hawks. In turn, the Coyotes would have created less with limited possession. Obviously, Campbell won’t be back for a while and they’ll need to get used to that, but missing both Seabrook and Johnsson creates a vacuum which just can’t be filled right now. While one superior effort in LA gave us all hope, that sort of outing is hard to replicate with spare parts and against a (shockingly) far superior team. I for one am not worried.”
Having to manage until further notice with a blueline corps that consists of Keith, Sopel, Hjalmarsson, a re-converted Byfuglien, and reservists Boynton and Hendry, the final ten games of the season suddenly look less like a tune-up than an episode of The Weakest Link.
The deeper question addresses the collective psyche of the team. Are they tough enough from an emotional perspective to overcome the absence of key personnel?
Adam Burish’s comment before the fateful loss in Anaheim was ominous: “The last seven or eight games are the most important games of the year if you’re going to make playoffs because that sets the tone of what you’re going to do. If the playoffs were tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel real good about where we’re at right now.”
The issue that has provoked the most passionate debate, is that of physical toughness.
While the Cup winning team of 1961 had the fists of Reggie Fleming and rugged veterans like Elmer Vasko, Jack Evans and Dollard St Laurent to back up the finesse of stars like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Ken Wharram, Pierre Pilote and Bill Hay, the current team is still suspect as to its robustness, in the minds of some fans and writers.
Wistfulness drips from the words of Hawk fans who list the names Manson, Probert, and Grimson, and turns to truculence in online keyboard wars.
For students of Hawk history, the thrashing of Eric Nesterenko by John Ferguson and the stifling of Bobby Hull by Claude Provost in the 1965 Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Canadiens, remain painful evidence that intimidation and flypaper-tight checking can dash the dreams of skilled Hawk teams. “Hockey Chronicle”, the encyclopedic volume by Morgan Hughes, Stan and Shirley Fischler, Joseph Romain and James Duplacey, serves as reference.
Bob Verdi, the Hawks’ official archivist, paints a portrait of Chicago’s peaks and valleys that is full of color, triumph and pathos. ‘The One That Got Away’ , which details the 1971 Finals grudge matches against Montreal, is perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter in his luxurious “Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy Five Years” published to commemorate that anniversary.
The first round dismantling of the Hawk machine by the scrappy Minnesota North Stars, who finished 38 points behind them in 1991, is another reminder of the failures of the Indian Head that have marked the past half-century.
Fortitude is a quality often cited by Blackhawks loyalists. They point to the heroes and heroism of Hawks squads of the past. The faith they invest in those selected to keep hope alive, is forged in the cauldron of the longest quest to recapture the Stanley Cup by any NHL team.
Those who maintain this year’s Blackhawks are the best since 1961, insist that fortitude, born of this conglomeration of faith, will get them to the top of the mountain. Their voices propose, in various degrees of insight and vehemence, that the Hawks will find a way.
The shadow of the salary cap, and the doomsday effect already guaranteed by the soothsayers, adds urgency to their exhortation.
For these hard core fans—and perhaps, for the Hawks brain trust, though they couch their statements in corporate calm— the time to win is now.
One solution that has been suggested is bringing up talent from the AHL pipeline at Rockford, or even further downstream.
Hawks blog “The Fifth Feather” examines the assets available to the Blackhawks, and considers if the infusion of some of their new blood might be appropriate. The blog’s latest farm report provides further detail on prospects like defenseman Shawn Lalonde, agitating forward Kyle Beach, and bruising 4th-liner Rob Klinkhammer among others. Link here:
Should the Hawks count on call-ups? One can point to the successful emergence of Red Wing hopefuls like Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader in recent playoff years. Closer to home, the impact of Troy Murray, as a Hawk fresh out of college ranks in the 1982 postseason, and Jeremy Roenick in 1989, support arguments to be made for throwing the young and the fearless into the fire.
What is certain is that the Blackhawks will have to find a new balance.
Their sizzle has been subordinated to the crisis post-Campbell; their steadiness sabotaged by another Seabrook concussion. Without the quiet efficiency and experience of Kim Johnsson, whose ‘upper body’ ailment remained unknown at time of writing, it could be said the Hawk defense has holes big enough to drive a Peterbilt through without scraping the mirrors.
Monday’s Chicago press reports Joel Quenneville has been doing his utmost to impart his know-how earned from his own battles on the blueline to his troubled troops. Not only did he reportedly rip his charges a new one, he laid down the law in his statements to the media.
“It’s defensive zone coverage, we’ve got to be better. That’s how you win. You win in this league by playing defense. We know we’re going to score goals. We know we can play offensively, but that’s a commitment. It’s a group of five that are on the ice.”
The contrition of the players confirmed the concerns of their coach, with Duncan Keith using the word ‘embarrassing’ to sum up his mates’ latest efforts.
If the courage of the collective paid off with a shutout victory in Los Angeles, the elements that gave the coaching staff and fans reasons to be cheerful seemed to evaporate when the Hawks frittered away not one, but two, two-goal leads in Glendale.
Consensus on the depth of Chicago’s talent being what it is, character is the determining factor in the championship aspirations of any team. ‘Inconsistency’ is the word that is used as the whip to flog those who fail in the clutch.
Do the Blackhawks need to feel the sting of failure in order to rise to the occasion?
The possibilities of Chicago’s playoff matchups are already being imagined. Even if the odds-makers haven’t passed judgment, the pundits are proclaiming a cloud of doubt in the forecast.
The mantra of defensive responsibility is adhered to by several of the Hawks’ potential playoff foes.
At the moment, the Red Wings, the Coyotes, and arguably the Canucks, embody the value of the saying ‘strong play on both sides of the puck’.
Detroit, on the upswing since the Olympic break, and their fierce fan base, are probably licking their chops at the prospect of meeting Chicago in Round One; though their rise may preclude an early matchup.
The Coyotes’ unforeseen challenge for Best in the West is putting a wrench into the previously presumed playoff brackets.
The Canucks would like nothing better than to avenge last spring’s defeat, and no one more than Roberto Luongo, who is apparently, still smarting from his playoff dive bombing by the Blackhawks.
At a glance, the standings are shaping up with some shuffling in store. Based on the trend established in the ten or so games since the Olympic break, and if the same pace is maintained in the Western race, the order of finish could be as follows:
San Jose 104
Los Angeles 97
If they can play .500 hockey and if they maintain their Division lead, the Hawks would fall no further than third in the Conference. Unless, that is, The Hockey Fates unleash their ultimate cruelty.
As long as missing the playoffs is not a mathematical impossibility, the chronicles of past collapses serve as a caution to the complacent.
The Chicago Blackhawks should know by now they can’t afford an ounce of complacency.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.