When Corey Crawford left the lineup for good last December, the Blackhawks were a top-eight team in the Western Conference with playoff expectations. Their first games without the veteran goalie would come on a road trip to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary.
The Hawks lost all three of those games, the start of a monthslong test the team would fail in resounding fashion.
Fast-forward to last week, as the Hawks faced an identical swing through Western Canada. It was a new season with new possibilities. Not to mention a healthy Crawford.
“It’s still an important three-game trip for us,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We’re playing three teams that are all in the mix, all are improved. They’re all younger, and they all have some speed in the lineup, and everybody’s playing for the same two points. So let’s play the right way . . . [with] a real purpose.”
It sounded good at the time, anyway.
The Hawks went 0-3 against the Canucks, Oilers and Flames again, blowing excellent opportunities to win two of those games in the process. Their hot start to the season is but a faded memory. On a five-game losing streak in all, the Hawks, who don’t play again until Thursday against the Hurricanes at the United Center, clearly are being tested — where is that red pen? — once more.
Barely a month into a season that came with relatively modest expectations, the Hawks are up against it in at least a few ways.
Puck possession: The Hawks have been up and down in this area, with some pretty unbelievable clunkers mixed in. Take the 5-3 defeat in Calgary, in which they were outshot 41-15 and lost a 3-1 lead. It’s hard to stay in front when you can’t carry the puck into the attacking zone and can’t dial up the intensity to fight as hard as your opponent for loose pucks.
When the going gets tough for the Hawks, they tend to let it snowball.
“That’s our job, to kind of rise above that,” Jonathan Toews said before the trip. “We’ve talked a lot about wanting to be that team that’s resilient and sticks with it in games when we’re down, especially on the road, that we can find ways to win in ugly games where maybe we’re not the dominant team. But it’s just one of those things. It builds character, and we’ve got to stay with it.”
Floodgates are open: The Hawks’ 3.73 goals allowed per game was fifth-highest in the league. After an impressively stingy start, Crawford has allowed 14 goals in his last three outings. How much of that is about the shoddy defense being played in front of him? How much of it is Crawford being slow to adjust to the grind of a season after nearly 10 months out of action?
The Central: In arguably the deepest and best division in the NHL, the Hawks are one spot better than where they finished last season. In other words, they’re in sixth place — one spot up from the bottom.
How much ground have they lost in the standings since their last victory, which came Oct. 25 against the Rangers? Entering Monday, the first-place Predators had padded their lead over the Hawks by five points. The Wild and Stars likewise had outpointed the Hawks by five, the Jets by three and the Avalanche by two. And all of those teams had played fewer than five games.