Rozner: Blackhawks talking team game as they head home

  • Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks shake hands after the Blackhawks lost to the Golden Knights in Game 5.

    Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks shake hands after the Blackhawks lost to the Golden Knights in Game 5. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/22/2020 12:40 PM

You learn early on in hockey that the two things you can control are your effort and your defensive posture.

Scoring comes and goes, as do scorers, but those willing to try to win a game 1-0 or 2-1 will always be around because coaches need them.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton wrapped up the season in a Zoom conference Friday, he singled out Matthew Highmore as the perfect example.

"He doesn't play 25 shifts in a game, but the shifts he gets he knows exactly what he's supposed to do," Colliton said. "He goes out there and does it 100 mph. He doesn't cheat. He wins 50-50s. He advances the puck. He gets to the net.

"And then he gets off (the ice). He doesn't extend his shift. He doesn't hang around the offensive zone hoping to get a goal or a second assist or a plus.

"If he starts in the defensive zone he gets it out, gets it in and 35 seconds in the alarm bells are going off in his head that he's got to get off so Patrick Kane can step on in a good spot playing against tired guys in the offensive zone."

Against teams that are unselfish and seemingly always on the right side of the puck, the Hawks sometimes get caught heading the wrong direction instead of protecting their defensemen.

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Since he took over, Colliton has stressed the need for players to change that mindset.

"We need more of that up and down the lineup, and we'll be a much better team defensively because of that," Colliton explained. "We'll be defending fresh and have a better forecheck against tired guys and draw more penalties.

"You build energy in your group because guys are making team decisions and having a team-first mentality -- and that's how you win."

Colliton isn't suggesting the Hawks need 12 forwards like Highmore, just 12 forwards willing to think like Highmore.

"Look at Vegas," Colliton said. "Since January they were No. 1 in chances for and chances against, so just because you want to defend hard (it doesn't mean) you can't create anything. A lot of it is just commitment to do the right things every time you're on the ice.

"Where we get into trouble is when we don't manage the puck. When we have a structure and we're fresh, we do a pretty good job. We get into trouble when we start turning the puck over in our end or around the blue lines.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You put a lot of stress on the team as far as the reaction to trying to get back on the right side. The next part of it is you end up playing tired. We have to do a better job of getting off the ice. Advance the puck, get it in and change one at a time. Even if you don't create offense, you put yourself in a position to defend."

This is not complicated. It's also not as much fun as a track meet for players who have been able to get away with playing that way in a highflying offense, something that usually doesn't work in the postseason.

Hanging out at center ice and hoping for a chance isn't wise against big, heavy teams that pound on your defense and keep possession of the puck in your end.

"When we've been good, we've been able to build one shift at a time and start to play in the offensive zone and start to tilt the ice and then all of a sudden you're fresh and you're playing against tired guys," Colliton said. "The Edmonton series we were out-changing them and we were defending when fresh and forcing them to defend when they're not, and we look good defensively.

"But as soon as you start turning pucks over, or you overstay on your shift, it becomes hard."

Hawks GM Stan Bowman understands the thinking of great offensive players, but he also knows there's a formula you must have come playoff time.

"We have a lot of players with offensive skills and they want to make things happen to help the team win, and their intentions are good," Bowman said. "It's a bit of a double-edged sword. You can create some really good opportunities, but the other side of that is you put yourself in a bad spot.

"It's learning as a group, to know when to take those chances and when not to. More awareness of what you do in the moment can affect what happens 20 or 30 seconds later.

"You put yourself and your team in a bad spot. That happens too often for our group. The intention is right, but there's a price to pay for that. That is a large part of the challenge we've faced.

"Not just our young players. A lot of times our veterans are guilty of this."

Overall, however, Colliton has seen his club buy in a little bit at a time.

"We're making progress," Colliton said. "We're not where we want to be to be an elite team."

Team defense comes from an individual's desire to play the right way within a team game. You can't force a player to do that, but those who won't, well, they might have to look elsewhere for work.

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