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Protecting leads still a learning process for Blackhawks

The Hawks nearly blew another multigoal lead — a recurring problem for them lately — Wednesday against the Kraken.

The Kraken nearly overcame a three-goal deficit Wednesday against the Blackhawks.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

SEATTLE — The Blackhawks waited a long time to finally enjoy a lead earlier this season. Now that they’re going ahead on a regular basis, the challenge has shifted to protecting those leads.

“That should be the fun time to play hockey,” wing Patrick Kane said Wednesday.

Yet the Hawks are having trouble forgetting their scars from October, when every goal against them seemed to break their spirits.

“Winning’s still a little new to us this year,” wing Alex DeBrincat noted.

After rushing out to a 2-0 lead in 22 minutes Wednesday against the Kraken, the Hawks slipped back into bad habits. The Kraken dominated 51-18 in shot attempts over the remaining 38 minutes, and although it took them a while to translate that superiority to the scoreboard, they very nearly tied the game after scoring twice in the final six minutes and swarming Hawks goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with threats of a third goal. The Hawks held on to win 4-2.

“Once they scored . . . we got a little reserved,” interim coach Derek King said. “We kind of sat back. It’s almost like maybe those feelings of earlier when [Hawks players] were losing the games and [thinking], ‘Oh, here we go’ [came back]. We’ve got to get over that hump.”

The Hawks have blown two-goal leads three times this season — Oct. 27 against the Maple Leafs (an overtime loss), Nov. 3 against the Hurricanes (a regulation loss) and Nov. 9 against the Penguins (a shootout victory) — and very nearly one-upped themselves Wednesday.

They have found ways to survive their nerve-racking finishes lately — thus the four-game winning streak — but not in especially confidence-inspiring fashion. And they won’t be able to survive this way forever.

As DeBrincat put it, the problem stems from the Hawks “panicking” when they gain possession in late-game situations. Instead of looking around, finding an open teammate and starting their own push into the offensive zone, they’re flipping the puck aimlessly in the neutral zone. That relieves the immediate pressure but kills minimal time and lets the opponent promptly attack again.

“You get out in the neutral zone and you do your neutral-zone forecheck, the puck gets by you and you spend the time in the ‘D’-zone,” Kane said. “You chip it out, and then the next line comes out and does the same thing. . . . It’s not really the recipe for success.

“A lot of times when that ice is tilted . . . we do get the puck at times — we’re just not skating. We’re like frozen in cement. We’ve got to get our foot moving, get our head up and make a simple play.”

Controlling play while holding a lead is difficult; a losing team’s desperation and risk-tolerance typically help it create more chances. Accordingly, only six of the NHL’s 32 teams have an even-strength scoring-chance ratio above 50% when leading this season.

But the Hawks have been particularly bad. Their even-strength scoring-chance ratio when leading is an abysmal 35.3% — 59 chances for, 108 against. Only two teams, the Rangers and Coyotes, have been worse. The Hawks’ 47.1% even-strength scoring-chance ratio when tied or losing isn’t exactly impressive, either (it’s fifth-worst in the NHL), but it’s a whole lot better.

On the bright side, the fact the Hawks are even discovering this problem is progress from a few weeks ago.

Their play in the first period — which often has doomed them right out of the gate — has been stellar lately, as evidenced Wednesday when they allowed only three shots on goal in the first.

And four straight ugly wins are still four straight wins — and four much-needed ones.

“We’ll keep working at it,” King said. “Hey, if we’re on our heels because we’re up 3-0 in a game, I’ll take that.”