Rozner: Blackhawks' push for playoffs starts now

  • Blackhawks' Alex DeBrincat, second from right, celebrates with Connor Murphy, left, Patrick Kane and Pius Suter after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Chicago, Thursday, March 4, 2021.

    Blackhawks' Alex DeBrincat, second from right, celebrates with Connor Murphy, left, Patrick Kane and Pius Suter after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Chicago, Thursday, March 4, 2021. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 3/14/2021 5:59 PM

There is a long way to go, with NHL teams having just passed the halfway mark of this abbreviated season.

In a great spot midway through the season, the playoffs are no guarantee for the Blackhawks, who have lost three of four, been outscored 18-10 and have a whole bunch of Florida and Tampa coming up over the next week.

 

The mistakes Saturday night in a 4-2 loss to the Panthers highlighted how thin the Hawks' margin of error is against a good team when they play only half a game.

But they're 10-2-2 when they face the same foe and a better effort is likely Monday after Florida got physical Saturday. Whining is not the answer, and the only pushback came from Nikita Zadorov.

Still, you have to be impressed thus far with how GM Stan Bowman has rebuilt the Blackhawks on the fly, and the way in which coach Jeremy Colliton has begun to mold the young players while getting a fair measure of buy-in from the few remaining veterans.

The Hawks have the third youngest team in the NHL -- behind the Rangers and Devils -- and remain the smallest team in the league by weight. No matter how much the league wants ice ballet, it remains a physical sport, so teams are going to take advantage of the Hawks' size whenever they can.

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That creates more challenges for Colliton, who entered at a very difficult time in November 2018, only 33 years old with a veteran team that was accustomed to winning championships under only one coach and with only one style.

Change was not welcome, and it was clear that there was some reluctance to accept a different way to play the game. That is still the case for some veterans, especially when a game gets out of hand, or if the Hawks are trailing early.

The difference is young players want structure and they want to be taught, and the kids are listening to their coach. They may not always execute, but they are trying to give the coach what he wants.

With so many veterans having moved on or moved out, there are fewer obstacles and more ears willing to hear what a young bench boss has to say, and when the group as a whole is sticking with the plan, the veterans pretty much have to join the club.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Besides, if you want to win, you can't be on your own program. In some of the games the Hawks have lost of late, that's been clear. Guys wanting to do their own thing and taking off instead of taking the extra step defensively to deflect a pass or block a shot. That's all it takes to lose a close game.

It happened several times in a brutal overtime loss -- with less than a second remaining -- to Tampa on March 4, though the Hawks played quite well that night against the defending champs and had every right to win the game.

Thing is, they're not good enough yet to take off shifts or freelance at the wrong time.

After that game, Colliton was measured and reasonable, though still desiring more from his group after the Hawks had a 2-0 lead going into the third and Tampa scored twice in the first 3 minutes to tie it.

His words that night sum up where the Hawks are in 2021.

"There's gonna be times when the opposition -- particularly a team as good as them -- is gonna have their push and might even control the game for a bit, but the details protect you, your work ethic protects you, your willingness to defend protects you," Colliton said. "We were there for most of the night. There's a lot of positives.

"We weren't quite ready to do what it takes for the whole night. If we want to get to where we want to go as a team, we have to find that."

That was the case Saturday night just as it was March 4 when the Hawks were particularly good in the second period against an elite team.

"The details of your game are magnified in the second period," Colliton said. "Your willingness to skate, put pressure on the puck, execution with the puck, are magnified. We did those things really well.

"We were skating. We were relentless pressuring the puck. We were clean with the puck. We drove the puck deep, forced them to defend, took advantage of transition when it was there.

"You look pretty good when you do that. It's a fun way to play.

"In the third, they were all over us and we were playing at 70%. It's a point shot, it's a deflection, get a goal off a faceoff. It's unnecessary.

"They're gonna have their push. How do you deal with it? Do you stay on the defensive side? Do you stop on pucks? Do you fight for loose pucks to win a line?

"That's what we do when we're good."

Details. Effort. Brains. Sticking with the plan. It's not a new message, but it's having an effect on the group, a group that plays hard pretty much every night.

There has been much good this season. The young players are learning and the effort most nights has been solid, this without their top two centers.

But how they finish will determine the future in Chicago of some players, so this is no time to take a foot off the gas.

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