After competitive loss, Blackhawks hope to learn from Panthers’ tactics

The Hawks lost 5-2 to the high-flying Panthers on Sunday, although the final score was inflated by two empty-net goals.

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The Panthers beat the Blackhawks 5-2 on Sunday.

AP Photos

The Blackhawks put up a decent fight against one of the NHL’s best teams Sunday at the United Center, albeit fruitlessly.

The eventual 5-2 loss was inflated by two empty-net goals, and the Hawks were very much in the game after Caleb Jones cut the deficit to one with 7:22 left.

But the Hawks also watched closely what worked so well for the Panthers and tried to learn from it.

“That’s a good hockey team,” interim coach Derek King said. “They force you to back off because once they know their ‘D’ are getting it or even [forcing] 50-50 pucks — and they were winning some of those battles — they’re out of the zone. They’re gone. So you have to back off. They flip pucks or they indirectly [dump them in, and] they usually pick them up pretty good, and then they’re on offense pretty quick.

“[We’ll] take a page from their book, how they play and how they blow the zone when their ‘D’ get it. That could be something to look at.”

Outside of ex-coach Joel Quenneville’s forced resignation in October during the Hawks’ sexual-assault cover-up fallout, this has been a dream season for the Panthers, as new coach (and former Hawks player) Andrew Brunette has powered the locomotive with even more fuel.

The Panthers’ victory improved their record to an Eastern Conference-leading

35-10-5, including 17-3-1 since Christmas. They lead the league with a plus-65 goal differential. They’ve averaged 4.95 goals per game since Christmas.

The Hawks particularly keyed on — and were impressed by — one Panthers tactic that involved their weak-side winger (opposite the puck side) jumping up aggressively on the counterattack.

That motion forced the Hawks’ defensemen to back up, instead of stepping up to force a neutral-zone turnover, since they knew an outlet pass to the weak side could burn them. And with the defensemen backed up, the Panthers were able to enter the offensive zone relatively easily and keep possession for extended stretches.

It was understandably frustrating for the Hawks’ defensive corps.

“They stretch their forwards a lot, and then their ‘D’ come as that next layer and jump up, try to get above our forwards to be that next layer on the rush,” Connor Murphy said. “It’s about having good back pressure and making sure that us ‘D’ have the best gaps we can as we enter the zone. Everyone [needs to be] sorting to the middle of the ice to keep their -passes to the outside of the dangerous areas.”

“You can’t let [the winger] go — he gets a breakaway that way — so it’s tough,” Calvin de Haan said. “We’ve just got to try and find a way to sustain a little bit more ‘O’-zone time. Sometimes even if you don’t create much, it still forces the other team to come 200 feet.”

But for the Hawks’ forwards and coaches, it was something to potentially include in some form in their own game plan.

King has openly experimented with new tactics to keep this lost season engaging for his team — he added a new twist of more aggressive pinching by defensemen earlier this month — and will have three practices this week to work on anything he wants.

“We fared pretty good with the challenge,” he said. “We hung in there with them. The third period, they came and they were like, ‘OK, enough with this.’ They started playing.

“But still, we were in it . . . [and] at least we kept it to the point where we could get our goalie out. It would’ve been nice to see us eat the puck in our skates, or get on the forecheck a little harder and not back off. That’s stuff we’ll talk about.”

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