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Patrick Kane’s third-period goal was too little, too late for the Blackhawks on Tuesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)

Underlying numbers should give Blackhawks cause for concern

SHARE Underlying numbers should give Blackhawks cause for concern
SHARE Underlying numbers should give Blackhawks cause for concern

In the somber moments after Game 4 of the Blackhawks’ stunning first-round loss to the Predators, Patrick Kane tried to explain how a 50-win team could be so thoroughly dominated. And in that moment of vulnerability, he hit on a hard truth.

“We won a couple of close games that might have made us feel like we were better than we really were,” Kane said.

To be fair, the Hawks didn’t post the second-winningest season in franchise history by smoke and mirrors. You don’t win 50 games by fluke. But the Hawks were heavily dependent on spectacular goaltending and timely goal-scoring last season. They won games in which they were outplayed. They stole points in games they trailed late. Add them all up, and a pretty good team looks like a great team — until the postseason, that is, when the truth is always laid bare.

The first 10 games of the 2017-18 season haven’t been much different. The Hawks’ record is strong: 5-3-2 against a very difficult schedule. They’re comfortably in second place in a Central Division that looks more mediocre by the day. But how good are they, really? The Hawks, for so long one of the top puck-possession teams in the league, have outshot only two of their first 10 opponents. Only two teams are surrendering more shots on goal per game than the Hawks.

The long, dominating shifts in which the Hawks pin a team in its own end — torturing opponents with endless cycling, tenacious forechecking and scoring chance after scoring chance — have been few and far between. Other than two utterly dominant victories over the Penguins and Blue Jackets to open the season — both teams played the second of back-to-backs, with a backup goalie starting — the Hawks largely have been outshot, outworked and outplayed.

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Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Golden Knights was almost all one-and-done possessions, with little to show for any of them. The Hawks dumped the puck in, and the Knights brought it right back out, uncontested in the corners. The Hawks fired a shot on goal, and Vegas pounced on the rebound and quickly escaped its zone.

“It starts in the offensive zone,” Jonathan Toews said. “Our sticks aren’t in the right areas. We’re letting teams break out against us a little too easily. It just seems like we get one chance, we have the puck for one play, and then we turn it over and it’s back in our own zone.”

Spending so much time defending wears a team down, forces it to take more penalties, leads to Grade-A scoring chances against. All the things the Hawks did to other teams during the halcyon days of 2010-2015.

“It’s trying to retrieve pucks off shots, rebounds, things like that,” Brent Seabrook said. “[Defensemen] helping out, diving down, having good gaps, trying to keep pucks on the blue line. As a five-man unit out there, I think we can work better at trying to keep some zone time and get some better looks and some better shots.”

A better power play wouldn’t hurt, either. Joel Quenneville has tried several incarnations of his two power-play units, now going with the more modern four-forward, one-defenseman look on both, with Duncan Keith on one unit and Seabrook on the other. It’s not working. The Hawks are 1-for-10 with the man advantage in their last three games, and most of those power plays have been unsightly.

“Power play wasn’t very good tonight,” Quenneville said Tuesday. “I think we got disrupted there in about three or four entries in the second period. We talk about having the puck, keeping the puck. A lot of loose pucks there that didn’t materialize into anything.”

The Hawks are by no means in dire straits. They have two effective scoring lines, the potential for a third and a surprisingly effective fourth line. Corey Crawford is among the best goalies in the league. The defense continues to be a work in progress, however, and the offense hasn’t been consistent or relentless enough.

Are the Hawks, once again, not as good as the record suggests? Perhaps. But after the wake-up call against the Predators last spring, at least they now can realize it.

And they have 72 games to fix it.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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