Rozner: If Blackhawks are going to get better, forwards must commit to defense

Updated 11/5/2018 3:42 PM
  • Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford gets ready to cover a loose puck during the second period Saturday in Calgary.

    Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford gets ready to cover a loose puck during the second period Saturday in Calgary. Associated Press

Joel Quenneville gave the Blackhawks Sunday and Monday off.

One can only assume he sent them home and asked them to think about how to keep the puck out of their own net.

And that's not on Corey Crawford, who's been terrific.

You can talk all you want about anything else that ails a hockey team -- any hockey team -- but if you don't limit quality scoring chances and give your goaltender some help, the rest of it really doesn't matter.

Gary Bettman will dream about 6-5 games until he locks out the players again, but every coach of every team will continue to focus on how to keep the puck out of their own net.

This was the way it was when the game was invented and this is how the game is today.

Don't believe for a moment that Quenneville views it any other way.

It's the one thing you have control over on the ice. How you play in your own end, notwithstanding the obvious bad breaks or bounces, is the only certainty.

Your offense will be what it's going to be. It comes and goes. Your stars have to be your stars and when they're not right on a given night, you'll struggle to score.

That's the NHL in the salary cap era.

But defense gives you a chance to win consistently and that's a 200-foot equation that involves every player on the ice.

Since it's the most recent example, let's take the Hawks' 5-3 loss in Calgary Saturday night.

The Hawks were up 3-1 late in the second period when Brandon Manning stepped into the puck carrier just over the blue line.

The Hawks still had numbers, but Travis Hamonic made a nice pass and Matt Tkachuk made an even better shot.

Maybe Henri Jokiharju was a fraction late moving over to fill for Manning, but he still got to the shooter and the Hawks had two forwards back to pick up the trailers.

Hard to find fault here, so credit the Flames. Fine. Up 3-2 going to the third.

"Tough one end of the second period," Quenneville said after the game. "We're still in good shape."

But Calgary came out on fire in the third and at one point was outshooting the Hawks 17-1. The total for the third finished at 20-4.

"We had the puck (in the Calgary end) a lot with opportunities to keep it and we weren't neat enough," Quenneville said, "and then all of a sudden it's going the other way when we had perfect possession of it."

Defense is played in all three zones and it's not just possessing it, but having numbers on the correct side of the puck if you turn it over.

You can be on wrong side of the puck in the offensive zone, the neutral zone or your own zone. Any of those mistakes can lead to scoring chances against.

Even with the Hawks being outshot badly, they were still up 3-2 with 6 minutes left when Marcus Kruger seemed to have the puck bottled up in the neutral zone along the boards.

But Andreas Martinsen was on the wrong side of Kruger and Alex Fortin, who was even with Kruger, didn't take a step back toward his own end until it was too late.

The result was a sudden 3-on-2 for Calgary and a pretty passing play that led to the tying goal.

"We gave up a play … getting beat a little bit with the depth of our third guy," Quenneville said. "It was kind of an innocent neutral zone play. Next thing you know they get an odd-man break and they make a nice play."

A minute later, Artem Anisimov tipped a beauty past Crawford for an own goal and the Hawks were down with 5 minutes remaining.

With a minute left in the game and on the power play with a 6-on-4 advantage, the Hawks couldn't manage a decent entry and gave up an empty netter.

So as much as they weren't the better team Saturday, and had to play the whole game without Duncan Keith -- who was tossed on a questionable major 2 minutes into the contest -- they had the lead on the road with 6 minutes left and lost 5-3.

You could make a case that the last 3 goals were preventable with a bit more effort and better attention to detail, which is always tough at the end of a road trip and with three games in four nights.

Fatigue will do that to players and that's precisely when you have to rely on what you've been taught, what coaches constantly preach.

"Putting it all together is playing the right way," Quenneville said. "Good habits seem to erode at critical times. That's what we have to improve.

"We have to play right from start to finish. You have to want the puck and you have to want to be out there."

So you can argue about the depth of the defense, the lines -- especially the third and fourth lines -- the lineup changes, what the stars need to do offensively or find flaws in the roster.

None of that matters if the forwards don't play smart defensive hockey in all three zones and help the defense and their goaltender.

That's what cost the Hawks the game Saturday night. That's why they're winless in five.

And that's what they'll be talking about at practice Tuesday morning.

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