The Blackhawks might finally be learning how to protect a lead.
Between Feb. 1 and Monday, they blew seven of their nine multi-goal leads (excluding empty-net goals), a feat so bad it was impressive. But they seemed to turn a corner this week, building multi-goal leads by the second period in two games against the Panthers and successfully seeing both of them out.
“We want to build confidence that when we’ve got a lead in the third, we’re going to close it out,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “You want those to be automatic. The way that you do it, it can build confidence in your team. You want to just snuff it out.”
Tuesday’s lead fizzled from 3-0 to 3-2 by the final minutes — the Hawks didn’t exactly snuff that one out — but they held on for a win nonetheless. And they responded well both times the Panthers scored. They followed the first goal with several shifts in the offensive zone, regaining their momentum entering the second intermission. And forward Mattias Janmark followed the second goal by drawing a penalty that gave the Hawks a power play, allowing them to eat up most of the remaining time.
But if Tuesday was a small step forward, Thursday was a massive leap. After allowing a barrage of shots early in the game, even while building a 2-0 lead, the Hawks played their best defensive hockey of the night during a crucial stretch of the third period.
“I really liked our third,” Colliton said. “We beared down there and found a way to defend. I would’ve liked us to spend a little more time in the offensive zone . . . [since] that is, a lot of times, how you close out a game. But we did have to defend quite a bit, and we did a really good job.”
Between the TV commercial break with 9:19 left and winger Brandon Hagel’s game-sealing empty-net goal with 1:24 left, the Hawks didn’t give up a single shot on goal.
The Panthers attempted five shots during those eight minutes, versus 68 attempts during the other 52 minutes. One missed the net, and the other four were blocked by Ryan Carpenter, Hagel, Patrick Kane and Nikita Zadorov, respectively. Goalie Kevin Lankinen (41-save shutout) had a busy night but not during that stretch.
The Hawks’ stout play exemplified that they’ve learned “not to feel panicked,” defenseman Connor Murphy said.
“We showed times in the past where we would vacate the front of the net and let a guy get a Grade A chance in the slot or let their ‘D’ walk down to open ice,” Murphy said. “It seemed like guys were clicking better with that, realizing that even though [the Panthers] were going to have a little bit of a push, we weren’t going to panic.
“We were going to play the way we know we can in ‘D’-zone. And then, when you get a puck, you’ll make a strong play to get it out at the right time. That clicked.”
A seven-week sample of bad results outweighs a one-week sample of good results, so it’s premature to say the Hawks’ issues are fixed. Colliton has used the phrase “lack of killer instinct” a dozen times or more this season and surely will again at some point.
But the improvement and positive reinforcement this week should help moving forward.
“[We took] steps forward, for sure,” Colliton said. “[It’s] not perfect — we know there are things we can be better at — but we’re a team that has a lot of learning to do. And we know we’ve got to keep improving.”