Blackhawks’ concerns go beyond just the penalty kill

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Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks are still searching for their identity. (Getty Images)

The Blackhawks have been the NHL standard-bearer for years now, the benchmark, the model for other teams to emulate. They used their speed to skate circles around opponents, their skill to generate scoring chance after scoring chance, their depth to wear down opponents, their savvy and strength to own the puck — cycling in the offensive zone with such ease that they looked like they were toying with their opponents, the Globetrotters against the Generals on ice.

But two weeks and seven middling games into the season, the Hawks bear little resemblance to the powerhouses of the last four years. They’re losing faceoffs. They’re chasing pucks. They’re scrambling just to enter the offensive zone. And they’re trailing early and often.

“Our identity in the past was being fast and having the puck,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Now we don’t have quite the four-line rotation, or the puck enough, to get that precision we look for, that identity we’re accustomed to having. We’re not playing as fast, because we’re defending a lot more than we’re used to.”

Indeed, Hawks games so far have followed a familiar and frustrating script. A slow start marked by sluggish legs and sloppy passing. A poor penalty kill (or two, or three). Then a mid-game wake-up call that’s often the product of a desperate and frantic chasing of a lead.

The penalty-killing problems — the Hawks have given up a whopping 14 power-play goals, matching the highest total through seven games in the last 23 seasons —are the most glaring issue at the moment. But the Hawks’ general malaise goes beyond just the PK.

In six of their seven games, the Hawks have been outshot in the first period. And often by a wide margin. Nashville blitzed them 11-5 and 16-8 in the first periods of a home-and-home set. Columbus outshot them 17-10, Calgary 14-8. In fact, the Hawks have given up at least 10 shots on goal in a period 11 times through 21 periods, an alarming number for a team that built its Stanley Cup runs not on their brilliant offense, but on their shot suppression.

Is there a reason for the slow starts?

“No good one, that’s for sure,” Jonathan Toews said. “We’ve got to get that out of our game. The penalty-kill usually translates from our effort 5-on-5, and if we’re not starting games well, then we’re getting behind [and] giving up power plays. And we’re not killing the penalty kills that we’re on. It was unfortunate to get behind again [Monday night against Calgary].”

Patrick Kane pointed to the fact that the Hawks have played three games in four nights in consecutive weeks. With six rookies on the roster experiencing the NHL grind for the first time, it’s even more important for the older players to bring it

“We have a lot of young guys that probably haven’t played in that type of scheduling before,” Kane said. “It’s something to get used to, and something for us veteran guys to lead by example and make sure we’re getting off to good starts. Especially in the United Center. There’s no excuse not to come out and have a good first period and dictate the pace of play right away.”

It would be easy to chalk up the mediocre start to growing pains, to all the rookies getting acclimated to the pace of the NHL and to the Hawks’ style of play. But as Quenneville said, everyone is accountable. Toews has no goals and two assists in seven games. Duncan Keith has been on the ice for nine of the 14 power-play goals against, and was in the box for another. Artem Anisimov has been terrific with a team-high nine points, but is a dreadful 35 percent in the faceoff circle, including a 4-of- 19 effort on Monday night. And just like last season, the Hawks are top-heavy, with most of their offense coming from Kane’s line, with the exception of Richard Panik on the top line.

Of course, some perspective is required here. Thanks in part to a miracle comeback against Toronto, but mostly to the brilliant Corey Crawford, who has allowed just three even-strength goals all season, the Hawks are 3-3-1 — hardly a disaster. But beyond the scoreboard, there are troubling signs, as the Hawks find themselves doing what so many other teams have done in recent years — trying to figure out how to play like the Chicago Blackhawks play.

“Everyone talks about growing pains or the young guys settling in, all that,” Toews said. “I think it’s across the board. There’s no separation in our team. There’s no veterans and young guys. I think everyone has to be better. And it definitely starts with the veteran players. The rest will follow. That’s got to be our No. 1 focus and not worry about whether you’ve been here for eight games or 10 years. It doesn’t matter. I think as a group we can be a lot better.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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