Blackhawks still a work in progress at season’s halfway point

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Joel Quenneville has had to constantly tinker with his lineup because of injuries and inconsistencies. (AP Photo)

A little more than two weeks ago, the Blackhawks were on top of the world. Well, on top of the NHL standings, at least. A five-game win streak, including triumphs over the likes of the Stars, Rangers, Blues and Sharks, gave the Hawks an eight-point cushion in the Central Division, and the best record in hockey.

But they rarely looked dominant on their way to that 22-8-4 start. They won games, but they didn’t own the puck the way they have for so many years. Patrick Kane piled up the points, but he didn’t toy with opponents in the offensive zone the way he did a year ago. Jonathan Toews did everything right, but he couldn’t find the back of the net with the consistency he has throughout his career.

Corey Crawford and Scott Darling stole wins with spectacular goaltending. A deep defense kept games tight, largely offsetting the offensive inconsistencies. And a knack for willing games to overtime and squeezing out points during lesser performances — an important skill in the loser-point era of the NHL — kept the Hawks atop the standings. It wasn’t exactly smoke and mirrors — goaltending and defense and third-period fortitude hardly count as trickery — but it was always going to be difficult to sustain.

Just how fine a line have the Hawks been walking this season? They have 14 one-goal victories, the most in the league. And they have 11 one-goal losses (five in overtime or shootouts), tied for seventh-most in the league. Three of their five losses over the last six games have been by one goal, leading Crawford to say after the Winter Classic, “We’re taking games to the end, and then it just blows up on us.” They could be even better. They could be a lot worse.

Of course, these are first-world hockey problems, and quibbles almost any other team would be elated to have. But the bar has been set awfully high in Chicago over the last several seasons.

So while this might not be the most comforting thing to read for Hawks fans, their current slump — 1-4-1 in their last six games, including losses to the likes of Ottawa, Colorado, Winnipeg and Carolina — was inevitable.

As they approach the halfway point of the regular season on Thursday, this Hawks team isn’t nearly as bad as its current stretch indicates. But it’s probably not quite as good as the first 34 games suggested, either. They’re somewhere in between — still seeking an identity, still searching for a consistent lineup, still dealing with injury after injury after injury.

The offense should get a boost from leading scorer Marian Hossa’s expected return on Thursday (rookie Tyler Motte was sent down to Rockford to make room for the veteran winger). But Marcus Kruger’s upper-body injury, which is likely to cost him another few weeks, gives the Hawks — who have muddled through without Crawford for 10 games, Toews for nine, Hossa for six, Artem Anisimov for four, and Brent Seabrook for two — another hole to fill, another important piece to live without.

It’s worth noting that January and February haven’t always been the Hawks’ best months. For a team whose playoff status is rarely, if ever, in doubt, the dog days of winter can be a slog, and the Hawks often go on cruise control for stretches. Last year was an exception, as they went 11-3-0 in January. But in 2015, they went 6-6-0. In 2014, they went 5-3-6. In 2012, they went 5-5-2. And in 2011, they went 6-4-1.

The Hawks are in no danger of missing the playoffs. They almost certainly will bolster their top six before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. And given his history, there’s no reason to think Crawford can’t continue to play at a superb level. The Hawks are fine, and they will be fine.

But “fine” isn’t good enough around these parts. “Fine” doesn’t win championships. The bad news is, the Hawks are clearly flawed. The good news is, so is every single team in the Western Conference. The best news? The Hawks have half a season to go to figure it all out before any of these games really count.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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