Rozner: Blackhawks' defense better with room to improve

  • If the Blackhawks hope to make the playoffs it'll start with a stingy defense, forwards coming back to help, and continued strong goaltending.

    If the Blackhawks hope to make the playoffs it'll start with a stingy defense, forwards coming back to help, and continued strong goaltending. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/25/2019 3:13 PM

There has been considerable optimism surrounding the Blackhawks lately.

And it's reasonable given the run of hockey over the last month.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But it remains a somewhat fragile work in progress after a 6-2-1 stretch got them back to within a victory of a playoff spot, and was followed by 0-2-1.

The shootout loss Saturday night in Dallas was a solid effort and one of their best defensive games of the year, but the preceding 4-2 losses to Tampa and Carolina provide reminders of the "details" Jeremy Colliton frequently mentions.

We offer you a goal each from those games as evidence.

A week ago against the Canes, in a scoreless match with about 5:45 remaining in the first period, a period in which the Hawks had been seriously outplayed, Erik Gustafsson went down on top of the puck just inside the Carolina blue line.

Three Canes were in the scrum and the numbers were dangerous, especially in a critical area of the ice.

Duncan Keith, as the last man back, inexplicably went for what was at best a 50-50 puck. Alex Nylander stood still. Brandon Saad watched from the offensive side of the pile.

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And when the puck squirted past Keith it was a 2-on-0 for Carolina from center ice in. You don't see that very often, but obviously no Hawk was on the correct side of the play.

It was 1-0 Carolina and the Hawks were chasing the rest of the game.

"We turned the puck over," Colliton said, "and then no one got on the defensive side of the puck."

The Hawks lost 4-2 with an empty netter, so in essence a single goal cost them a chance.

Two days later against Tampa it was almost the exact same play as Connor Murphy was stuck along the boards in a pile at center ice, right in front of the Hawks' bench.

With 7:40 remaining and the Hawks down 2-1, Patrick Kane, Kirby Dach and David Kampf all got caught on the wrong side of the puck, hoping it would bounce the other way for an offensive chance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Kane and Dach came back hard and almost disrupted the 2-on-1, but it was too late and the tap-in made it 3-1 Tampa. The Hawks lost 4-2, again with an empty-netter after the Hawks made it close.

So they lost a pair of games by a goal -- basically -- because of mental mistakes.

It's just seeing the numbers. You have to be able to count and act responsibly.

These are teaching moments for Colliton, who has loosened the reins a bit over the last few weeks, allowing the forwards more freedom to play higher in their own end.

Better breakouts and entries have led to more offense, and Gustafsson without handcuffs looks like Gustafsson offensively again.

But there was suddenly this notion that the Hawks could win 6-4 every night. It's unlikely and unsustainable.

Credit Colliton for adjusting to his players' needs after a very slow start, but he has no less interest in protecting his own net than he did to begin the season, or when he talked about it for the six months leading into October.

He still preaches a 200-foot game and his players have adopted that mantra conversationally, if not always putting it into practice.

Their back pressure is probably 75 percent better than it was last year, and with upgrades on defense in Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan, along with strong play from Murphy, the Hawks look more professional on the back end than they have in years.

Combined with much better goaltending -- Robin Lehner has been superb -- the Hawks at times have looked like a playoff team.

They have to cut down their shots against, which is the worst in hockey at 37 a game, but they have managed to cut their goals-against from 30th in the NHL a year ago (3.56) to 10th (2.87), as much as anything because of great play by Lehner and Corey Crawford, who own a save percentage of .922, good for fourth in the league.

The penalty kill is getting better, but the power play is too often one wind sprint after another because faceoffs are lost and entries are terrible.

Still, the Hawks went into Monday night only 3 points out of a wild card with 2 games in hand on Vegas, not a bad place to be after an awful start, but the next month is big as conventional wisdom is you need to be right there by Christmas or the climb becomes too steep.

It's not exciting and it's not always fun for the players, but defense is the only certainty in the game, as offense comes and goes from night to night.

If the Hawks are to make a serious run this year, it can only happen through a commitment to protecting their goaltenders.

Exciting or not.

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