Small change yielding big results for Blackhawks
Defense, defense, defense.
It was the storyline of the off-season and the preseason: If the Blackhawks were going to become a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference, they absolutely, positively had to improve this phase of the game.
So that's exactly what Jeremy Colliton and his coaching staff focused on during training camp, and they put a system in place that they figured would do the job.
But a funny thing happened along the way -- the offense went in the tank.
In Games 3-11, the Hawks averaged just 2.1 goals per game and 3.0 power-play opportunities.
Recognizing something needed to change, Colliton threw his playmaking wingers a bone and is allowing them to play higher in the defensive zone when the opponent has the puck.
"We had four low a lot of times to try and overload in certain situations," Colliton explained before his team left for Vegas. "That's good. It gets you out of D-zone.
"But the problem is when you win the puck back, a lot of times you're very close together, and it's harder to make clean plays. It's harder to exit with space to make plays."
So think of it like this: Instead of using a Bears-like offense in which Mitch Trubisky never throws a pass more than 5 yards downfield, the Hawks are unleashing their inner Aaron Rodgers and allowing defensemen to once again fire pucks farther up ice.
Yes, it's a bit riskier. But it's also freeing up Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Co, and allowing them to zip through the neutral zone and more easily cross the offensive blue line.
"A lot of us kind of stressed that it was a different game," said Kane, who is now riding a seven-game point streak after scoring the Hawks' first goal in their 5-3 victory over the Golden Knights on Wednesday. "There wasn't as much flow to it. ...
"They made a change and all of a sudden it seems like we have more options coming ... we have more motion (and) speed coming out of our own end."
This subtle change -- along with the decision to finally put Kane, DeBrincat and Dylan Strome on the same line -- is a big reason the Hawks are 3-0-1 with 17 goals and 14 power-play opportunities in the last four games.
The tweak hasn't produced perfect results, of course. The Hawks are still having issues exiting the D-zone, and when the weakside forward is up higher, it's much more difficult for him to help if there is a turnover.
Their saving grace when that happens is the fact that Robin Lehner or Corey Crawford is almost always there to keep the puck out of the net. Crawford (39 saves) was outstanding once again in Vegas as he outdueled Marc-Andre Fleury in a game that featured a plethora of high-quality scoring chances.
"Guys want to make plays," Colliton said. "And so we're just trying to find the balance. We want to continue to work on being good defensively, but we've got to score more than them. I think we can still hold on to those defensive gains we've made and score more goals."
By the numbersHow top draft picks of the top five years fared through November 15 of their rookie year. Every player except the Flyers' Nolan Patrick and the Hawks' Kirby Dach averaged more than 13½ minutes of ice time. (Number by their name represents draft position).
2015Player, team GP G A Pts. ATOI
1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton 13 5 7 12 18:00
2. Jack Eichel, Buffalo 17 6 3 9 18:49
20161. Auston Matthews, Toronto 16 6 6 12 17:16
2. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg 18 12 5 17 19:01
16. Jakob Chychrun, Arizona (D) 13 1 2 3 17:46
20171. Nico Hischier, New Jersey 17 3 11 14 16:11
2. Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia 9 1 2 3 12:29
20181. Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo (D) 18 1 6 7 17:55
2. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina 18 4 4 8 13:35
3. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal 19 3 7 10 13:45
4. Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa 8 4 4 8 14:54
20191. Jack Hughes, Rangers
2. Kaapo Kakko, New Jersey
3. Kirby Dach, Blackhawks