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Blackhawks’ defensive coverage issues reaching new lows in season’s final weeks

The Hurricanes’ fourth goal Tuesday exemplified how confused and out-of-position the Hawks have often been lately in their own zone.

The Blackhawks have struggled to defend the Hurricanes in this week’s series.
AP Photos

The Blackhawks’ defensive coverage, a weakness all season and in seasons past, has reached new lows in recent weeks.

Defensemen and forwards alike are regularly getting beat to the net or slot by the player they’re supposed to cover, or — even worse — leaving players uncovered entirely. Individual missed assignments and collective confusion with sorting and switching have all contributed.

Turnovers have been problematic, and often coverage is at its worst immediately after an unexpected turnover. Coach Jeremy Colliton has also pointed to cleaner breakout passes and more offensive possession time as ways to reduce stress on the defense. But the coverage has been arguably the most inept facet of the Hawks’ recent play.

Through April 20, the Hawks allowed 56.0 shot attempts and 28.2 scoring chances per 60 minutes on five-on-five play — the sixth- and second-most in the NHL, respectively. They weren’t good.

But in the seven games since, they’ve been even worse. They’ve allowed 66.2 shot attempts and 33.7 scoring chances per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, and their goals-against rate has nearly doubled from 2.51 to an unsightly 4.91.

With the pressure of the playoff race gone (due to the team’s many losses), Colliton has rotated the lineup more and challenged many of the Hawks’ young players with more responsibilities. That explains some of the statistical regression.

The urgency for players to make final good impressions before the upcoming summer housecleaning, however, should still theoretically provide plenty of motivation.

“It’s the NHL, right?” defenseman Riley Stillman said after Tuesday’s 6-3 loss. “Guys are trying to keep jobs, guys are trying to take jobs... We’re attempting to come the right way [but] things aren’t happening right now.”

One play from Tuesday — the Hurricanes’ fourth goal, scored coincidentally by Teuvo Teravainen — exemplified the Hawks’ coverage woes.

The Hawks had Nikita Zadorov and Wyatt Kalynuk as their defensive pairing and Dylan Strome centering Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane as their forward line. The Hurricanes carried the puck up ice with Zadorov guarding Andrei Svechnikov, Kalynuk covering Dougie Hamilton — the defenseman joining the rush — and Strome following Sebastian Aho as the center-on-center matchup.

Once in the offensive zone, Svechnikov stopped with the puck along the half-wall and appeared to momentarily lose control. Strome ignored Aho to try to poke the puck away, but Svechnikov backhand-passed it a millisecond before to Aho down low. That created a scenario in which the Hawks’ coverage crumbled.

DeBrincat led Teravainen comfortably up the ice behind the rush. But he inexplicably left him at the moment of Strome’s failed poke-check, leaving DeBrincat too high in the zone to cover anyone. He actually never re-entered the camera frame.

Zadorov, as he too often has this spring, was caught flat-footed. He didn’t react quickly enough to switch onto Aho, and he failed to recognize a now-unmarked Teravainen over his left shoulder.

Kalynuk, meanwhile, briefly disengaged when Hamilton held up above the faceoff circle and drifted back next to goalie Collin Delia, leaving him too deep to cover anyone — and essentially useless — after the puck reached Aho.

Kane, arriving late into the defensive zone, hung back to block the passing lane for a potential Hamilton weak-side one-timer. But he never stepped toward Teravainen, even when it became clear the way the play developed that Teravainen was the more imminent threat.

The Hurricanes’ fourth goal Tuesday broken down into four frozen moments (sequential from top left to bottom right).

Ultimately, Aho and Teravainen were left completely unguarded and cleanly executed a simple pass, simple pass and simple goal.

“I felt we got hung up [along the wall] and got beat to the inside,” Colliton said succinctly when asked later about the sequence.

The loss was meaningless from a postseason perspective, just as the Hawks’ final three games will be. But breakdowns like that demonstrated just how much they’ll need to improve — in terms of personnel, performance and even overall system — to hold their own defensively in 2021-22.